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Social Media and Senpai

Over the weekend, Scott Greenfield wrote about the trend in social media that one can be a mentor or be mentored via social media:

There’s harm being done here, and that’s why it’s necessary to point this out.  The lawyer who has tried ten cases is being “mentored” by the twitter lawyer who has never tried a case.  The lawyer who has tried 100 cases, but poorly, is a twitter rock star.  The twitter lawyer isn’t a lawyer at all, but someone “passionate” about something he knows nothing about.  You have no clue who you’re twitting with, and your twitter support group becomes the ultimate measure of the virtual “risky shift” phenomenon.  With support, the worst ideas begin to sound reasonable.

Mentoring is crucial for lawyers, particularly the young and new ones who tend to look to the internet for comfort.  It’s not about camaraderie, or support, or high-fives or even getting your tummy rubbed.  It’s about being told when you’re wrong, before you do something foolish and damaging. It’s about a deeper understanding of what we do than appears in 140 characters. It’s about real people talking about real things with other real people, who we know and trust.  It’s about having a better reason to seek the advice of someone than the expectation that they will tell you how wonderful you are and give you a balloon.

Social media can be a fun way to kill some time, and twitter can be a wonderful substitute for real friends for those who feel isolated and alone.  It’s not without its virtues.  But mentoring is not one of them, and blind validation is the antithesis of mentoring.  If you’re seeking a pat on the back, knock yourself out on twitter. If you want to “improve your craft,” don’t delude yourself by thinking that your twitter pals are the answer.

But there can be some sort of relationship developed with other, more senior lawyers online. When young lawyers engage with more seasoned practitioners via Twitter, blogging, email, etc. a sort of guiding relationship can be established. To me, it mostly resembles the Japanese relationship between senpai (先輩) and kōhai (後輩) (at least with my experience with the terms in the context of a Japanese dojo).

Senior and Junior

While senpai and kohai are often translated as mentor and protege, it’s not really how the relationship works. It implies too much force or strength in the bond. The relationship is much better understood if translated as senior and junior. Within the context of a dojo, the mentor is the sensei (“person who comes before”), the instructor. The sensei will provide direct guidance to each of the students and help them develop their skills. But there are generally too many students for the sensei to provide each of them significant individual instruction. As such, senior students who have been around for a long time are expected to serve as sort of role models to junior or new students. Give a helping hand here and there, a correction to behavior, a stern look at foolishness – but generally serve as examples of how one should conduct themselves within the role as student within the dojo.

In the West, and depending on the family, it might be seen as similar to that of an older and younger sibling. Say a 12 year old girl and 6 year old boy. The sister is not the brother’s mentor/instructor/parent in any fashion. But the sister will serve as an example to the brother of how to behave and perhaps help out in some small ways with directing his behavior.

Of course, having an effective senpai/kohai relationship is dependent on the sensei developing such an atmosphere within the dojo, and making sure each student understands how it works. The sensei can step in and make direct correction to any incorrect instructions from a senpai and rebuke a senpai who abuses their seniority. A parent can do the same with a misbehaving older sibling.

But there is not overarching Grand Poobah of lawyers on the internet to make sure everything works out okay. As Greenfield notes, some young lawyers are going to stumble online and foolishly take some people at their word without bothering to find out who these people really are.  What these young lawyers think are effective “mentors” or “seniors” could just as easily be a dog.

Salon électroniques

But young lawyers are going to turn online seeking guidance and support – it’s just how this new generation functions. It’s why a thriving and adversarial “blawgoshpere” is important – to provide a forum for junior lawyers to observe how senior lawyers behave. Not in the  superficial “rah rah” world of the Slackoisie happysphere but an antagonistic place for argument and discussion - salon électroniques. A forum where it is okay to disagree with people. Where it is okay to call people out on their lies, damned lies, and statistics. Where it is okay to be brutally honest about life as a lawyer and not paint the practice as a land of rainbows and ponies. Beyond being “okay” this activity is to be encouraged. It shakes out the pretenders and wannabes.

A patient young lawyer with their head on straight can observe and “learn” in such an environment. Not by developing some sort of ridiculous e-mentoring relationship. But by watching how senior lawyers conduct themselves. What they talk about. How they deal with others. Who they regularly interact with online. It’s not a mentoring relationship, but a young lawyer can learn from senior lawyer’s behavior and experience.

The trick is knowing who to trust.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

2 comments

  1. The senpai’s credibility is derived from two things, his study under the sensei and experience, both of which are fully known and understood by the kōhai. While the analogy has some merit, under guarded circumstances, it’s hardly as clear or certain on the internet.

    I’ve now spent about 5 years in the blawgosphere, and have come to know some people about as well as someone can without any actual contact. There are many who I once thought well of, but who have since proven otherwise. There are a few whose advice and counsel I respect and admire, but it took some time to realize who was who.

    Then again, most kōhai on the internet really aren’t interested in having a sensei or a senpai. They just want their tummy rubbed.

    • Very true. The analogy is not perfect, but it is what struck me while reading your post. I think it probably won’t have much significance or weight for people without the cultural understanding of the terms and how senpai/kohai framework functions. And as you note, the real trick is taking the time who is worthy of respect.

      And it’s probably too true about tummy rubs unfortunately.

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