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

Meaningful Mentoring at Husch Blackwell

After plenty of hard work and eight years of guidance provided by her mentor, partner John W. Borkowski, senior associate Aleks O. Rushing has achieved a special goal: as of January 1, 2024, she will be a partner at Husch Blackwell, a firm where she opted to build her career after serving as a summer associate. In Part III of our interview, we learn what this means for both attorneys.

Part III of III: A Goal Achieved and What’s Next
(Read Part I) (Read Part II)

HUSCH BLACKWELL (HB): Congratulations, Aleks!

ALEKS O. RUSHING (AOR): Thank you so much!

HB: What does making partner mean—and what does it mean to you?

AOR: Making partner means that I’m now going to focus on developing our education team and building our existing client relationship teams to serve our clients better and more innovatively. It also means developing new business. I want to grow our education practice across the country, but especially in my backyard, St. Louis.

Personally speaking, I think about how as parents, we say that we would do anything for our children. I think most of the time we mean that. But it would be quite a challenge to say I'm going to give up my entire career and move to a new country where I don't know what the prospects are. Yet, that's what my grandparents did for me. My grandfather was an extremely successful attorney also in private practice in Serbia and Montenegro in the 1930s and 40s, and he gave all of that up because he didn't see as bright of a future there for his children and grandchildren and moved to America so that we could have better opportunities and a better life. For me, making partner is a huge victory for my family because it's why we came here: to truly live out the American dream.

HB: John, it probably came as no surprise to you that Aleks made partner. But as her mentor, what did that mean to you?

JOHN W. BORKOWSKI (JB): It wasn’t a shock at all. The first discussion we had in our first mentoring meeting was, “What’s the goal?” Aleks was clear. She said, “I want to be a partner in this law firm.” People could spend years figuring out the answer to that question, but she was doing the work, following through, being intentional right from the beginning. So, I knew early in our relationship that she was going to make partner.

But it's also just amazingly rewarding and joyful to see it come to fruition—not only to see her do it, but to hear how much it means to her. So many people work at things without knowing why they’re doing it or what their goals are. It’s just an incredible honor to work with somebody like Aleks who has such clarity about what is important to her and why.

AOR: Thank you, John.

HB: Some law students participate in a summer associate program, then as an associate leave a firm for other opportunities. What was it about Husch Blackwell that convinced you that you wanted to remain here for your career, Aleks?

AOR: I felt like I could be my authentic self here—even as I interviewed as a second-year law student. I wanted to end up at a firm where the time I was investing would be reinvested in me, and where I didn’t need to pretend to be someone else. I add a different perspective as a diverse attorney and mom who works, and at other firms where I interviewed, I felt I would have to look and act a certain way. It was different here.

HB: Have you discussed how your mentoring relationship will change now that Aleks has made partner?

JB: We've had a preliminary discussion. We may not meet every Monday morning like we have for years, so it may be a different format, but we agree that it will be valuable to continue the relationship in some fashion. Certainly, I see the value in doing so, because over the last three or four years the relationship and process have become more collaborative. Just this afternoon, for example, we had a conversation about the opportunities presented by generative AI and how we're going to translate that into increased value for our clients. It really wasn’t a mentoring conversation per se, but a more collaborative one. That’s valuable for me and one reason I'm glad that Aleks wants to continue the relationship.

AOR: Agreed. And I will be coming up with different goals. My goal initially was to make partner and have an education practice that included both higher education and K-12 education clients. I can confidently say I have achieved that goal. That's exactly what I'm living as of January 1.

JB: Can I interrupt for a second? I think it's important to point out that another big part of the goal was for you to prioritize your family and be an involved mom. A lot of our strategy discussions from the very beginning have not merely focused on being a partner in a law firm as the prize but also being a partner in a law firm as part of a well-rounded life. In a law firm, much of what we do is sell our time. That creates an inherent challenge because we only have so much of it. You’ve done a wonderful job managing that.

AOR: Thank you for adding that, John. And it goes back to that question about why I came to Husch Blackwell. It wasn't just about making partner; it was about making partner look the way that would support me as a wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend, and all the other roles I play, because I'm never going to give those up.

HB: So, what are your goals going forward?

AOR: My goal is to become an equity partner within our Education group. I also want to be a leader at the firm. I would like to join committees that I feel advance the initiatives I really care about.

The four categories we talk about every Monday are still applicable: (1) meeting firm expectations; (2) skill development; (3) opportunities in the next month, six months, and one year; and (4) building my reputation inside and outside the firm. I just view them a bit differently now.

Meeting firm expectations used to mean meeting and exceeding my billable and non-billable hour requirement while doing excellent work. These things are still important, but now the focus is shifting to include client service, managing teams, and building on the strengths of team members. John is a great manager of teams, and I want to pull from his approach as I continue to hone mine.  

As an associate, I focused on building my reputation internally and externally and becoming knowledgeable about areas within education law that I care about. Now it's about building that brand and network, which I do in large part through LinkedIn. Before I came to the firm, I did not use social media regularly at all, but by talking with others who were knowledgeable about the platform’s benefits, especially after meeting folks at industry events, conferences, and seminars, I became convinced of its value. But that wasn't where I was when I started eight years ago.

HB: Will you seek out additional mentors now that you've made partner? If so, what advice do you hope to glean from them?

AOR: I've always had mentors outside of the firm who are attorneys and business professionals—experts within their field. My undergraduate degree is in elementary education, so I have a number of friends who are teachers and administrators in schools. Bouncing ideas off them provides a fresh perspective outside of the legal industry and framework. I want to learn from folks that are experts in their industries especially about client service—what works and what doesn’t—because I've only ever been at Husch Blackwell. I don't know what it's like to be in-house or a senior administrator seeking legal advice and what those pain points are.

The other piece concerns being a mom who works. My husband and I are two working spouses with demanding careers who are also parents, which comes with its own set of challenges. Learning from moms who are in similarly situated families and what they do to prioritize their families and work is helpful.

HB: John, what are some things that you were not prepared for when you made partner that you made sure Aleks knew going in?

JB: I was candid about the things that do not change—like the work and quality expectations, putting in your time and meeting client needs. We also discussed practical changes, such as those involving employee benefits, and talked about the metrics that the firm uses to review partners, which are different from those used for associates. It’s not just your hours, it’s what you're contributing in terms of the work you bring in or the clients you're managing. That’s why Aleks is already shifting her focus.

Aleks will be a great partner because in a lot of ways her skill set lends itself better to being a partner than to being an associate. Part of it is probably because she's benefited from the fact that my advice is informed by things I didn't do right early in my career—like cultivating a personal brand and marketing myself. I came up in a generation where if you worked at a good law firm and you were a good lawyer, the assumption was that the clients were just going to come knocking on your door. Back then, no one told me how important those marketing concepts are. But times have changed. It’s now an incredibly competitive market, and we have to not only deliver value to our clients but effectively communicate about what we bring to the table.

AOR: One thing John has really encouraged me to do when developing that personal brand is to lean into the things I care about. I'm enormously proud to be Serbian Orthodox—it’s part of my core identity and informs everything I do. As our business is so relationship-driven, John suggested I think about how I could develop clients that are also Serbian and develop the relationships I have had since I was born. I have clients whom I've known since I was a kid. The reason that they trust our firm is because they trust me and my judgment.

HB: How will you make sure your mentoring ideas continue to live on?

AOR: This isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but we have had so much positive feedback from sharing our story that we've somewhat jokingly said we have to write a book before John retires. The topic of mentoring is covered in articles, but they do not include the deep dive that is necessary for mentoring to be mutually beneficial to both mentee and mentor.

JB: I’ve sketched out an outline for the book already.

AOR: John is the best. Stay tuned because this book is coming!

HB: If an outline exists, it’s going to happen.

To wrap up, is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

JB: I can't think of anything I regret. This is my favorite part of the job, by far. I told the head of our practice group that he had to give me a new associate mentee, because Aleks was going to be making partner and I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I have a new mentee now, so I’m happy.

AOR: I agree with John completely! I am excited that our mentoring family is expanding and look forward to getting my own mentee on our education team soon.