This blog was originally going to discuss the ins and outs of starting a law society – the things that you should know before starting, what the experience is really like, and the sorts of benefits to be gained. But, as I wrote, I realised that starting a law society is a rare thing. At universities, these are typically already well-established, and the odds of you being the first to incept the idea is unlikely. Instead, I have chosen to talk more broadly about leadership and taking on positions of responsibility as an aspiring lawyer. This will include tips for starting a society or being part of an executive committee but will also apply to non-academic life.
Why should I volunteer my time to lead?
You might be wondering how you can take on additional responsibilities as someone that already feels as if they don’t have enough hours in the day. Although, sometimes, the more commitments that you have, the more time that you feel that you have. Confused? It does seem a bit backwards. For me, having several commitments meant that I planned out my days with great precision and thoughtfulness, meaning that I worried less about 'not having any time and just completed what I needed to when I'd planned to do it. It's a bit difficult to explain, and this can only ever work to an extent; of course, there is such thing as being over-committed. But, the first step to growth is pushing yourself further than you’ve been pushed before and seeing how you fare.
There are so many things to be gained from responsibility. Skills such as leadership, teamworking, organisation, creativity, problem-solving, project management… Any professional skill that you can think of can be gained, no matter how 'unprofessional' the experience seems. A student society can seem, at times, more like a social activity. But think of all the kinds of experiences that you could have – organising events, directing and collaborating with other committee members, communicating with people of varying levels of seniority and managing a budget. All while you’re establishing valuable connections with other law students and speakers such as lawyers and entrepreneurs. The actual position, law-related or not, isn't nearly as important as the raw learning opportunities you're exposed to.
I’ve never done anything like this before – how do I know if I’m a leader?
My personal philosophy is that everyone is born with the ability to do anything within reason. Indeed, this is tempered by your life circumstances and whether you are in, say, a financial position to do certain things physically. But overall, anyone can hone any skill. I like to think of skills as seeds. We’re all born with the seed of leadership planted in our psyche, and it’s our choice whether we water that seed or not. It's really as simple as deciding to nurture yourself. So, start giving yourself those experiences from which to grow. Think of them as the water!
What if I’m a Master’s student?
I’m an LLM student, and I had never been on the executive committee before my current course – although I am now the vice president of my campuses law society. It is common to think of a Master's degree as separate from the traditional 'university experience', but university, no matter your age, is what you make it.
But I don't know anyone!
Knowing somebody isn't always a requisite. At my university, you had to have at least two executive committee members (yourself included) when setting up a society. A great way that you can meet people is through student Facebook pages or virtual campuses. On the other hand, if you're joining a society or organisation rather than launching one, then knowing someone couldn't be less necessary.
Is there even a point while everything is virtual?
Just because you’re living through a pandemic doesn’t mean that you should put professional development on pause. Running a society or organisation virtually presents lots of unique opportunities. You have to try a little harder to engage people and it’s definitely not as easy as showing up at freshers’ fayre anymore.
What do I need to prepare?
Create a plan and have goals
If you're thinking about applying to be on an executive committee, create a plan of how exactly you want to lead. What kind of culture do you want to create among members and within your team, is there another role (eg, president) that you would ultimately be seeking, are there any specific skills that you want to focus on developing? It would help if you went into this with a ‘roadmap’ of sorts to keep an eye on the bigger picture and stay motivated. Goals, both personal and professional, are a great thing to have. A personal goal could be improving your public speaking ability by chairing an event with a guest speaker. A professional goal could be increasing the membership levels by a certain amount or hitting milestones such as having a winter ball.
Think of inspiring event ideas
Try to think about unique events that you can host in the current climate. A good idea is to think about the kinds of events that you would personally be interested in or would have benefitted from as a student. Perhaps sessions on niche areas of law would be useful as, after all, not everybody wants to be a corporate lawyer. Collaborations with other societies could maximise engagement and reach. I would also recommend having a mix of event 'genre' – both professional and social. Ensure that your members have opportunities to get to know the committee and each other (even if this is only through a screen).
Draft a budget
If you’re starting a society from scratch, you might need to create a budget. At my university, you were provided with a template to use for the budget as well as instructions. This primarily involved setting out what budget was required, what the proposed budget would be spent on, and a budget statement. After you've planned, set goals and thought of some events – this should come easily.
It is typical for societies to run elections for members to vote for the committee. If this is the case for a position you are interested in, put real time and effort into running your campaign, and it will pay off. This may involve enlisting the help of friends with proficiency in creative tools such as Adobe to design virtual posters. Know what your USP is and form genuine connections with members. Give them a reason why they should vote for you. Pro tip: people are always looking for what they can get out of something. Target your campaign to the people who will benefit from your plan and goals – perhaps people who may have their voices and views represented by having you on the executive committee.
What should I expect?
First, expect challenges. This is especially true for new or small organisations. Going into it, don’t expect that all of your events will go to plan; one of the biggest challenges that my own society faced was the disengagement from students. Rather than getting to know each other during socials, we created a culture between our members through a WhatsApp group and virtual events. Plan for disengagement and don’t get disheartened – get motivated.
Second, market market market. It can’t be stressed enough, but while things remain virtual, one of your greatest assets is good marketing. If your society has a budget, use it. A low event turnout doesn’t always mean that you’ve marketed badly, but you can certainly avoid the risk of a lack of marketing causing you problems.
On the same point, you should mitigate against the possibility of a low turnout by having contingency plans. Cut the Q&A session at the end of your event and have a list of pre-prepared questions that you can chair and ask your guests. Things like this can save a lot of awkward silences, trust me!
Third, expect to commit yourself fully even when this gets difficult. Attend weekly meetings because maintaining constant communication is important with your members but even more important within your committee. Really getting to know who you're working with and their capabilities is essential. Going back to the seed metaphor – it’s up to you to keep the seed of leadership watered and flourishing within you. If you don’t, you might find that your ability has wilted. A good example is our social skills over the pandemic. At least for me, as we have begun to emerge from this cocoon back into normality, entering and holding a conversation with the same confidence and vigour has been noticeably more difficult. It will take time for this skill to be built back up to the same level.
Like with leadership – you need to keep exercising and nurturing this skill to keep it sharp.