• On Finding a Successor

    I recently found another gem of a slice-of-life manga titled Sota's Knife (Souta no Houchou) and boy, what a page turner! The manga tells the story of Sota Kitaoka, a young man from Hokkaido, that pursues the art of classical Japanese cuisines at Ginza Tomikyu, a ryotei that is known as one of the best traditional restaurants in Tokyo (all are fictional in case you are wondering). The relationship between Sota and Kyugoro Tomita (his Oyakata a.k.a boss/owner chef/master), his colleagues (including his love interest, Tomita's daughter), his growth from a kitchen helper to the top level, his dream of opening his own restaurant versus continuing the legacy of his boss, the hyper competitive environment of restaurants in Tokyo, and the passion and dedication of a true Shokunin shown throughout the series, are simply beautiful and full of emotions. Not only that they remind me of all the restaurants and chefs in Japan that I love so much (and sadly I could not visit until God knows when), but also the journey of my own career and what I look forward to for my future.

    Some people might cringe over the title of my post today. After all, I opened the doors of my own firm when I was only 34 years old, and it's not even 3 years yet since that opening day. Is it reasonable to talk about succession when I still work my ass like crazy doing what I love everyday? The truth is, I thought about succession from day one, about the people that someday will replace me and continue the firm's legacy. All the founders agree that we should not put our name on the door precisely because we believe that our firm should serve as a long-lasting institution that will continue to move forward even if all of the founders are no longer there. I know that I will not be here forever and it takes a considerable amount of time to train the next generation of lawyers. Simply put, if you only think about this when you're about to retire, you do not take this issue seriously. We plan to fail when we fail to plan.

    Unfortunately, finding a true successor is difficult. Similar to restaurants, this is a people business and you cannot control human beings. In the manga, Sota's training journey brought him to various places, including restaurants that are managed by young guns, an army of corporate chefs, and even old timers that are struggling to find the right heir. Throughout the series, Sota experiences first hand the fact that chefs come and go though some linger for a very long time. This is the immovable fact of the business as theoretically, its main purpose is to create professionals that can work independently after years of practice, and there are a multitude of reasonable and logical reasons for staying in or leaving a restaurant. It's just too similar with the world of lawyers as I have seen and experienced myself.

    But regardless of the difficulties and the fact that there is no guarantee that these people will pursue the same path with mine, I still keen to find my own apprentices and grow them to the next level. When you have your own shop and lead your own practice, it's not unusual to feel alone. All of my partners have different field of expertise and there are times when I have to decide something by myself. Ask any professional owner chef whether they ever have any doubt when they become the ultimate taster of their own food or their subordinate's creation, and they will most likely provide an affirmative answer, at least once in their life. In the end, our clients will be the ultimate judge. Such is the path of being an owner, there are no more people to ask when you're on the top and that is why I want to have my successors as fast as possible. Before they could become the qualified successors, they must be my equals first and in such way, the mutual relationship will enrich our experience and skills altogether.

    So what are the things that I seek from a worthy successor? Well, I learn and master most of my craft not from mimicry, but from negation, namely, I filled the gaps for things that my bosses did not do or instruct, and from this unique learning process, I feel that I end up being a better lawyer compared to if I had a boss who told me everything that I must do, step by step. Granted, this is not the traditional way of learning, and could only happen because we share the same view in one crucial matter (which is also demonstrated in the manga), if you want to stay long in this profession, you must understand why you do the job, and you do the job only for two categories of people, yourself and the clients. Not for your boss, not for your colleagues, not for your family, or for anyone else. In this service industry, you must like the nitty-gritty of what you do on a daily basis (for yourself) and love to serve (for your clients).

    In one of the strongest moments in the manga, Sota is chosen to be part of an elite team of Japanese chefs tasked to arrange a VIP lunch session for the prime minister's official guest from the United States, a big honor for a young chef like him (in fact, he was the youngest in the team). At the same time, his father, who was also a chef in Hokkaido was dying from cancer. He hid his condition from his son and told Sota to pursue the joy of cooking instead. Adding the drama, Sota only learned about this fact accidentally on the day when he had to attend the lunch, and after struggling with his convictions, he decided to continue with the lunch's preparation. When he learned about Sota's decision, the vice prime minister (who invited Sota in the first place due to being mesmerized by Sota's skills in Tomikyu) ordered him to leave for Hokkaido immediately, but he was shunned by all the other chefs who said that if they are in Sota's position, they will also do the same, they will stay and complete their task as professionals. With their help, Sota finally completed his dish and delivered a performance enough to make all the guest crying. In the end, Sota failed to meet his father for one last time due to the lunch event, but don't worry, the author masterfully closes that particular chapter in a very humane way, acknowledging the difficulties of such choice, and opening a set of new stories that are even more interesting (I won't spoil more).

    For me, lawyers are artisans, and being an artisan is a way of life, this is beyond mere working. As such, I can fully understand Sota's choice. Under those circumstances, I would probably do the same. But I am not foolish enough to believe that most people will make the same decision. What I truly seek is not necessarily people who share the same crazy commitment (I know that my conviction is on the extreme side of the equation), rather, I want those who know what they really want and demonstrate the conviction to survive the long and arduous journey through real practice. Sota made the decision without any regret. Had he chose the other way and left for Hokkaido, I will still respect his decision because the point is not about choosing family over profession or vice versa, the point is whether you understand your own choices, and whether you are prepared to live with the consequences. Once you accept the consequences, it will eventually be shown in your work products because the quality of your work products is the perfect reflection of your soul as an artisan. Without heart, you skills will falter, and without skills, your so called heart is merely a cheap talk.

    If you look into my eyes and ask me, "do you love your job?", you will get a quick and enthusiastic answer from me saying: "you bet I do!" But I guess I am just lucky to find that passion early in my life. Not many people can answer this kind of question at such a young age (I answered that question when I was 21 years old, and my answer remains the same until today). Heck, I've seen some old people who still don't know what to do with their lives. Indeed, it is not easy to describe what you really want in life. Feelings are dynamic and life is full with ups and downs. It's complicated and requires commitment and sacrifices, but hey, that's the challenge that gives meaning to our life. As I've said countless times, you only live once, never settle for mediocrity.

    Which is also why I am so happy whenever I visit all of my favorite restaurants in Japan. In each visit, I can feel the true dedication and passion for service excellence, fueling my own passion for my work. The gesture, confidence, and the proud eyes of the chefs, and of course, those exceptional skills that cannot be faked. Heart and skills, heart and skills, heart and skills. Repeat that mantra over and over until the day you finally say goodbye to this mortal plane. I suppose, that is the true quality of a successor that I want to find. So wish me luck and go read Sota's Knife now!


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