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A Conversation with Peggy Barlett and Tom Shorter

Meaningful Mentoring at Husch Blackwell

Madison office Senior Counsel Peggy Barlett started her career at the same firm as Partner Tom Shorter. Early on, she took the initiative to join his team, prompting what would become a long-term mentoring relationship. Now in her 14th year of practice – and after an in-house stint, a timely move to Husch Blackwell, and more than a few bags of a certain orange corn puff snack – Peggy is imparting lessons learned to her own mentees. Tom Shorter is a recipient of the HB Mentor Spotlight Award.

Husch Blackwell (HB): What is the value of mentoring in the legal profession?

Tom Shorter (TS): The private practice of law is incredibly hard. It’s very stressful and a constant time demand. Mentors can help you figure out how to engage and manage through it. Mentoring is very gratifying, but it’s also a two-way deal. Selfishly, I get more out of it than I put into it. I can’t begin to summarize everything I’ve learned from Peggy.

Peggy Barlett (PB): My perspective has evolved over time. As a junior lawyer, it was very different than it is now as I begin my 14th year of practice. I have the unique experience, too, of maintaining my mentoring relationship with Tom during the time I went in-house. It’s been beneficial to have that constant. As a mentee, I know that I can go to him with questions, problems and wins.

This is a hard job; it’s absolutely terrifying. When you start, even if you think “I’ve got this,” you will be sweating in your office as you craft that first email or letter. It’s valuable having someone you can go to and know that it’s an open forum, where it doesn’t matter if you think you’ve made a mistake, or a client is being difficult, or you’ve never dealt with a particular issue before. Your mentor reminds you that your feelings and reactions are normal. Having that type of support is necessary to succeed in this career.

I’ve hit the jackpot as a mentee. I wouldn't be where I am today without the mentoring I’ve received, and it’s influenced how I now interact with those I’m mentoring. I’ve taken a lot of what I’ve experienced with Tom and am giving that back to paralegals, associates and others I work with, as well as my friends outside the firm.

HB: How and when did your relationship with Tom begin?

PB: When I started at our former firm in 2009 during the recession, I was not on Tom’s team, but I started picking up overflow projects from one of Tom’s associates, and when she left the firm, I continued doing this work for Tom. I eventually worked for him full-time, and just by nature of this, he became my mentor. I had access to his calendar and was also very good at scheduling time with him! The mentoring relationship grew from there.

HB: Tom, how have your mentors influenced you?

TS: Learning how to work with and interact with clients in a way that makes them feel connected to their lawyer is a skill set not taught in school. You either figure it out the hard way or have someone mentor you. One of my most influential mentors was an attorney colleague who eventually became a client. When I was a young associate, he taught me not to advise until I listened – because if you don’t listen, you won’t know whether your advice is relevant.

He also taught me about balance. The day my twins were born, I was supposed to give a speech with him, and I didn’t know what to do. He said, “Well, you’re sure as heck not going to come in and give this speech with me. I can cover it on my own.” When I was concerned about taking paternity leave, he said, “Tom, your life and your home life are more important than what we do here.” These were the reassurances I needed to hear.

I still have mentoring conversations with him almost 25 years later.

HB: Peggy, you mentioned that your mentoring relationship with Tom continued when you left your prior firm to work in-house. How did the mentoring change?

PB: My husband and I had gone to law school together, but he decided to pursue a different career path after practicing for about two years. He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s risk management insurance program. With the job market for careers in his field, it seemed we’d be destined to move out of state after he earned his degree. I didn’t want to move to another firm and lose my standing as a sixth-year associate, so I went in-house.

When my husband graduated, he unexpectedly received an amazing offer to stay on as a professor at the university. Because I wasn’t feeling completely satisfied with my in-house role, I reached out to Tom for his counsel. As I was no longer with Tom’s firm, we didn’t cover topics such as what I needed to do to advance within the firm. Instead, he just changed stride and said, “Let’s talk about what makes sense for you.”

TS: We had those conversations for at least a year because I was really trying to help Peggy figure out what she wanted to do.

PB: I just knew I didn’t want to stay in-house. I’ve got pretty thick skin, which you need in this business, but a difficult management shift had me contemplating leaving the legal industry entirely. Tom helped me sort through my thoughts and find a path forward. But he was no longer giving this counsel as both supervisor and mentor. It was purely because we continued to have a relationship after working together.

HB: So, ultimately, the resolution was to return to the firm.

PB: Yes, but – unbeknownst to each other – we had each been having conversations with Husch Blackwell. I returned to the firm because I knew the work, the clients and, more importantly, Tom and the team. Three months later, however, we both left for Husch Blackwell.

HB: Tom, you said you couldn’t summarize the value you have received from your relationship with Peggy, but could you share an example of an unexpected benefit of this experience?

TS: The best example is a reflection on my own failings, quite frankly. I have run at this career full force, and at a cost. I have days where I feel I’ve built a pretty great career, as well as days where I feel I’ve missed out on other things because of it. Peggy has been a balancing force around that for me.  

I’m now watching Peggy mentor a group of people who are going through the stresses of trying to figure out how to do this job. Because the mentoring she received was helpful to her, she is paying it forward by doing the same for others. Peggy would have been a fabulous mentor without ever knowing me, but this interconnected, authentic web continues to spider as others pay it forward. That’s the power of mentoring and why I keep doing it. I am gratified when my mentees hit home runs and achieve their career objectives.

HB: Peggy, how has Tom’s mentoring impacted your practice?

PB: There is this genuine air that comes from Tom. I see it when he interacts with clients, mentees and colleagues. He gives them his undivided attention and has an innate ability to make everyone feel seen and heard. He understands that everybody, no matter their title, serves an important role. I’ve been witnessing it for years: Tom will attend an event and return with eight contacts and four new projects. To me, that’s a unique skill set. Clients feel cared about when they work with our team because the relationship has been fostered. That attitude has influenced my practice.

HB: Tom shared some meaningful counsel from his mentor. What piece of advice from Tom has really resonated with you?

PB: There are two things. First, I can’t do what I do without a team. The minute you take the stance that you’re the only person who matters, you will be on an island by yourself. Tom taught me that you can’t build a practice on your own. Second, when my personal and work lives have collided, he has said – probably influenced by his own mentor – “We are not just our jobs. Go deal with what you have to deal with and let me know if you need any help. Don’t worry about it; we’ll figure it out.” 

HB: Tom, you've worked with Peggy for a long time. What is the most significant change you’ve seen in her evolution since your mentoring relationship began?

TS: Her poise in the middle of absolute unfettered chaos. Like Peggy said earlier, it’s scary when you first start in law. You go from “I know how to handle all these law school exams” to suddenly feeling like you don’t know anything. When a team member is not able to deal with stressful situations, there are lots of implications.

I’ve watched Peggy develop this incredibly powerful skill of asking, “Could it possibly be worse right now? Probably not, but we’re going to figure a path out of it.” Our next generation of lawyers watches her in action and learns from it.

Peggy also figured out that my stress food is jalapeno CHEETOS®.

HB: Whatever works!

TS: Yes! I remember in some of our most chaotic times, I'd come into the office, and a bag would be sitting on my desk. It was a way for us to communicate that we were on the same page, that we were going to put our heads down and continue to move forward in the face of gale winds. That’s one of the tools to success in this job where you have a fair number of storms. Clients are scared and need a team with a steady hand.

HB: Your mentoring relationship began long before you joined Husch Blackwell, but how has the firm shown its support for mentoring?

TS: Husch Blackwell does everything it can to foster an environment where mentoring relationships can succeed. The firm knows that mentoring is valuable and supports it in every way possible, which means putting billable hour credit toward it, supporting it in other monetary ways, and pairing people up through the mentoring program in hopes that they will form authentic mentorships. While that’s not always the outcome, the firm does all they can to encourage those relationships – and there are lots of them at Husch Blackwell.

PB: I tell associates that while they have an assigned mentor, they’re going to have a ton of other mentors. They’re going to pop up all over the place, many of them within the firm, in different practice areas and teams that the associates will work with. And how awesome is it that we have that network here? You can have 15 amazing partners to talk to who care about your progression and what you think. That’s very powerful and something that extends beyond the firm’s mentoring program.