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A Conversation with Aleks O. Rushing and John W. Borkowski - Part II

Meaningful Mentoring at Husch Blackwell

Shortly after joining Husch Blackwell’s St. Louis office as a newly minted associate in fall 2015, Aleks O. Rushing reached out to Chicago office partner John W. Borkowski to mentor her. Seven years later, as Aleks prepares for partnership herself, John is still providing guidance – counsel that has evolved with Aleks’ development. The relationship, one of mutual respect, is a continuum that has benefited both mentee and mentor alike throughout their professional and personal journeys. John Borkowski was the recipient of the HB Mentor Spotlight Award.


Part II of II: Unexpected Benefits and Relationship Evolution
(Read Part I)

HUSCH BLACKWELL (HB): What is the most unexpected benefit you’ve received from this relationship?

ALEKS O. RUSHING (AOR): How supportive John has been in helping me navigate being both an attorney and a mom and wife without either role being sacrificed. He is an awesome dad and a great spouse. He’s able to have a thriving practice while still going to his kids’ soccer games and doing everything a parent wants to do. When I started at the firm, I wasn't a parent and I had just gotten married, so I couldn't have envisioned that part of it. It’s very different practicing as a junior lawyer when you can work, basically, 24/7, than it is now with two small boys and a husband who also has a demanding career.

The most important piece of advice John has given me is to value my time, because if I don’t, nobody else will. If someone has given me a project that needs to be completed “anytime this week,” why am I assuming that means right now or tonight? John has shown me how to properly prioritize and navigate some of the trickier situations so I feel like I can be the best mom/wife and attorney.

HB: And how about you, John? What is the most unexpected benefit?

JOHN BORKOWSKI (JB): Aleks’ progress is completely what I expected because she was very clear about her goals, is a good listener, and is willing to put in the work. Every week she sends me a written report on what she’s doing. We meet every single Monday, usually for a half hour, sometimes more, sometimes less. She’s been putting in that time for over seven years. It was clear from the outset that she was very willing to do it, so her success is not at all unexpected.

The unexpected benefit is that Aleks’ success has empowered me to have more candid conversations with other junior people in the firm, to get them to think about things that might make them successful and happy in the long term. Aleks and I talked about this early on: If you want to feel fulfilled as a professional, you have to have as much control of your life as possible. I’m much more proactive with others now because I've seen the success that Aleks has had by always meeting firm expectations, by being clear about her priorities, by having the difficult conversations, by learning how to delegate, and by effectively communicating to senior people what she can and cannot do. That’s really hard, but people have to be encouraged to do that.

AOR: That speaks to John, that I feel comfortable raising difficult situations with him. It’s that trust factor. I don’t hesitate to bring up an issue because I know I can get his honest feedback. I may end up having to have a tough conversation, but I will be better for it, and it will help our client and our team. Trust allows us to have those great conversations and ultimately to make ourselves better as attorneys, as parents, or as whatever roles we play.

HB: John, it sounds like when you are mentoring Aleks it’s about empowering her to make decisions and have those tough discussions, not you doing those things for her.

JB: That’s accurate. There are two parts to that. In the beginning, I was a lot more directive about the four areas and would ask Aleks what she was doing in each of them. I never raise them anymore because I know she’s doing the work. So it’s evolved from my being very directive, to her now setting the agenda about what advice she needs in any given week in order to take her next steps.

To the second part about when there’s a problem, many times we’ve brainstormed together and arrived at an approach agreeable to Aleks. While I’ve sometimes offered to talk to someone on her behalf, I don't know that that’s ever happened because it’s more about helping Aleks have the hard conversations herself. That’s better long term because if you’re an associate, the tough conversations that you have today with a partner are just like the tough conversations you’re going to have to have down the road with a client.  And so, if you don’t develop that skill and how to think those things through – how to really manage your practice and your life – it’s just going to get harder. When you make partner, many think life gets easier in the practice of law, but itt doesn't: That’s a myth. And so, if you can, you should be developing the skills necessary to manage your life and career as a partner while you’re still an associate.

AOR: John and I will go over exactly how to phrase something, which has empowered me a lot more. He helped me realize that those conversations will help me in every respect: at home, at work and with clients.

JB: It’s important to learn how to navigate difficult situations early in your career. I was great at being an associate, but I didn’t really focus (and nobody encouraged me to focus) on the skills I needed to be successful as a partner, both in terms of business development and work-life balance – managing my career and my life. One such mistake is that I came in for an important meeting with a client the day after my first son was born. I’ll regret it until the day I die. I told Aleks this story when she was going to have children. I let somebody imply to me that I wouldn’t get to work on a really interesting project if I didn’t attend this particular meeting. It was a great project, so I left my wife and newborn son at the hospital for four hours while my son was still under ultraviolet light with jaundice. In retrospect, that was just a ridiculous thing to do, but that was the culture at the time not just in the firm where I practiced at the time but throughout the legal industry. But that’s not the kind of career I wanted or the kind that I want for any our associates at Husch. So that goes back to mentoring by learning from mistakes. That was a terrible mistake, and I don’t want Aleks or anybody else to come close to making a similar one.

AOR: That story really resonated with me. I mentioned navigating the motherhood piece. Maternity leave is short-term and there’s a lot of support around it, but what about the support leading up to it and afterward? I am a mother forever and needed that support much longer than just during maternity leave. I have a very nuanced spreadsheet of every client, matter, client relationship manager and managing attorney whom I’m working with on every project and who is assigned for coverage in my absence. But there are other issues. When I returned from leave, for example, I nursed for a year and was pumping in my office and on client trips. I’m so beyond thankful for John’s support in navigating those challenges.  

HB: That’s fantastic. John, how has Aleks evolved as a professional in the years you have worked with her?

JB: In many ways. Her skills and knowledge of the field have just grown dramatically because she’s put intentional work into developing them. She’s decided in what areas she wants to practice and has become a subject-matter expert in all of them. She’s got practical experience because she’s actively sought out opportunities to develop those skills. So as a lawyer, it’s like a night and day difference, because let’s face it, law school teaches you some legal doctrines and “how to think like a lawyer,” but it doesn't really teach you how to practice law. Aleks can practice law at an extremely high level of skill now. Also, she’s become more strategic about her approach.

Those are probably the areas where I’ve seen the most growth, because she came in with a lot of strengths: She’s articulate, confident, personable and smart. I think she will be a great mentor when she’s a partner. She probably already is a mentor to a lot of other junior lawyers. 

HB: Aleks, how do you think you have evolved with John’s mentorship?

AOR: I value my time very differently. I used to just say yes to everything and not think strategically. I said to myself, I need to exceed my hours, be available, continue to be a go-getter, work super hard and it’ll all work out. Because I said yes to everything, I couldn’t prioritize the things I actually valued and enjoyed. And I’m someone who, if I commit to something, is never going to drop the ball. John really helped me shift that focus to prioritize the work I enjoy more. In the beginning, I was doing work for several teams because I wasn't 100 percent sure where I was going to get all my billable hours from, and as a consequence, I was turning down work that I really wanted from the Education group. I now make sure I am prioritizing properly.

HB: Finally, John, one of Aleks’ goals was to become a partner. When this happens, how do you expect your relationship will change?

JB: We haven’t talked about that, but my own take on it is that I should probably send her on her merry way and take on a new associate to mentor. That said, I’ll certainly be available for formal or informal mentoring. If we still want to do weekly meetings for any reason, that’s fine. We’ll have to have a conversation about what sort of formal/informal, regular/irregular relationship is beneficial going forward. But we’re still doing what we’re doing now because I know that partnership is an important goal for Aleks and I want to make sure that I’m available to assist in that as we get through the final stages of that process. We’ll just have to decide together what to do after that.

To learn more about how their mentoring relationship started, read Part I of our conversation with Aleks and John.