Militants & Mentorship: How To Choose A Law Office Sensei

Not all lawyers were brought up in a rigid Aikido culture. But, Keith Lee’s description in his blog, An Associate’s Mind, awakens the senses as if we all were.

You can almost feel your own knees cramping under the seiza (“proper sitting”). And, you can definitely writhe with pain just thinking about the deliberate, long, tiresome, and trying training involved with repetitive falls and motions as depicted in Lee’s story.

Mentally, the anguish feels not unlike a hard day at work.

But, that’s precisely the point Lee is attempting to make about the learning process in a martial art versus a liberal art.

Law is not unlike the practice of Aikido. Both require proper training, technique, and mentorship. In Lee’s opinion, the process should be harsh.

“It’s been ten years since I was an uchi deshi (and seven years since I’ve trained in Aikido regularly) and I can explain, in exacting detail, the intricacies of a technique. I can explain why dogi are worn left over right. I can discourse on fuboku no oshie from memory. I can take a fall on concrete and pop right back up. All of this is possible because I was broken down again and again,” writes Lee.

“Instruction, examples, and demonstrations were plentiful. Praise was slim. I look back on it with fondness.”

At the law office, praise is certainly slim. Like most of the corporate world, the billable hour is high-stakes, stressful, and sparing of praise.

The question remains, does toughening up really teach us something?

Like Lee’s kenshu classes, is sharpening the mind really so similar as sharpening a sword?

“To bring an edge to a blade, to make is capable of cutting and piercing, it must be ground and filed. The metal on the blade must be removed—broken away—again and again before the edge is revealed. The edge is never “created”—it always exists innate in the metal,” writes Lee.

According to his article, a mentor’s value is not measured by his ability to create, but by his ability to critique.

And, associates should seek out mentorship from a leader who is interested in breaking down assumptions, poor form, and clichés in order to unveil more finely honed skills beneath the skin.

Although simplified, it’s wise advice.

There are, however, other traits a Sempai should seek from his Sensei.

First, choose a mentor with objectivity.

Like the message in Lee’s article, new associates will learn most from their mistakes, and from an even-tempered mentor who points them out without hesitation or judgment.

Second, choose a mentor with motivation.

Mentorship is most effective when the mentor personally benefits from his protégé’s success. For example, an equity partner who monetizes case wins or a managing partner who looks good when subordinates achieve.

Dual motivation will keep associates from second-guessing the true nature of advice from their superiors. And superiors, for their turn, will readily give credit where credit’s due.

Third, choose a mentor who is a model.

Experience can teach a person a lot, but emulation will accomplish more.

If a student doesn’t aspire to attain or respect the position that his mentor holds, he will never choose to endure the breaking-down process so keenly described by Lee.

So, would-be staff attorneys should choose a mentor within the pool of career attorneys. First-year associates on the partner track (or even ambitious paralegals) should find a willing partner to serve as their mentor.

Whomever you choose, personalities—unlike the process—should not clash.

Mentorship can be assigned, or a person can pro-actively choose it. Survival and success at your firm will depend on the right fit.

Still inspired by the warrior stance, remember, “He who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword.”


Read Keith Lee’s full, artfully-written article here, titled “On Mentors: To Sharpen Is To Destroy.”


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