Advice to Incoming Affiliate Leaders: Next Year’s Success Depends On This Year’s Planning

Volume 36 Issue 6


I once had a history teacher prepare his class for a challenging final essay exam by giving them this piece of advice, “Your grade is determined before you begin writing your answer. Your grade is determined as soon as you are done planning your essay.” As it turns out, he was right.

An Affiliate’s success depends on the quality and number of programs it implements in any given year. But as an Affiliate leader, your immediate task is not to ensure the “success of the Affiliate” in the abstract. Your goal—presumably—is to make next year, your year, as successful as it can be. A successful year serves the Affiliate and your community. But it also enhances your reputation among your peers. The latter aspect of leadership is an important, although often unspoken, motivator for young lawyers joining bar organizations.

So how do you make sure your year stands out? How do you make yourself, and your Affiliate, the subject of accolades among bar members, bar leaders, and legal circles? Here are a few tips.

1. Create a Calendar of Events

First, make a list of the projects you want to implement during your term. These may be new ideas or old ideas (see Tip #2). Figure out what you want to achieve. And then, slot your “projects” into a calendar of events.

It may seem like a “pie in the sky” idea, but creating a calendar of events gives you a framework for the bar year. Identify which weekends you will host which events and where, calendar internal phone calls and meetings, set deadlines for newsletters and online publications. This will give you an idea of what months will run heavy and what months will run light. It also will allow you to distribute work so that people have manageable responsibilities year round. You may also choose to work some people very hard for a short period of time but then let them return to their “other lives” for the rest of the year. Either way, calendaring your year will help you get perspective on what is in store for you and for your Affiliate.

2. Improve Existing Programs

Although leaders like to innovate—the prestige of it is unquestionable—taking a project your predecessor began and improving, increasing, or growing it is an excellent way to build on the efforts of others, provide program continuity, and use existing connections. If your predecessor held a “First Annual Fundraiser,” consider organizing a second one. Use the people who organized the first one to find out what worked and what did not.

Alternatively, look back a few years and identify projects that were implemented once but never took off. Talk to the people involved in those projects and try to understand why the project was only implemented once. Then, you can decide whether you want to use the idea and make it a staple of your Affiliate.

The process of identifying, and re-implementing old projects, has several advantages. First, you don’t have to think up a project. The idea is already there. Second, you have the “prototype” and you can start troubleshooting something that already happened rather than anticipating things that may happen in the future. Third, this process allows you to contact and network with previous, current, and future leaders. Your circle of acquaintances will grow exponentially.

3. Keep It Simple

Whether you decide to start a new project or revamp an old one, keep it simple. Programs can be extremely successful even if simple. What matters most is not the grandiosity of the project, but how useful it is to members of your community (whether the public or the bar). For example, a series of monthly CLEs in fancy restaurants with prestigious speakers may sound fantastic, but it may turn into a nightmare if restaurants and speakers don’t line up to meet your membership’s busy schedules. Instead, begin holding quarterly CLEs in comfortable settings, such as law schools, universities, low-key food establishments, and invite experienced practitioners from around town. This way you keep location, speakers, and frequency manageable. People will remember your Affiliate offered useful CLEs on a regular basis. By using local practitioners, it will increase the likelihood that word of the CLEs will spread. The same logic applies to clinics, fundraisers, and pro bono programs. When starting out, start with a basic set up. Your successors will be able to embellish it, but you will have founded it.

4. Keep It Focused

Keep the project focused: thematically, geographically, by length, and by content. For example, rather than setting up clinics for seniors, veterans, children, domestic abuse victims, police officers, or first responders, identify the two-to-three issues you really want to address during your term. Tailor your events to target those issues. As another example, if you want to implement a program across the state, choose two-to-three manageable cities. Once the program is implemented there, move on to other cities. If you want to host a CLE program, higher quality for fewer hours is more effective and manageable than more hours with less quality.

5. Assign Discrete Tasks

You may be tempted to assign particular projects to a committee and hope it works. A committee that organizes itself is a great thing, but many committees need a little more guidance. A committee that does not produce the desired project or program may not be a lost cause. It may simply have been given a task and no way to achieve it.

Break down the project into discrete tasks: fundraising, venue, speakers, food and refreshments, outreach, and so on. Assign groups of people—or a single person—to each task. If possible, break the task down to manageable goals. Rather than telling someone to “find a venue,” give them a list of possible venues and if possible contacts at each of those venues. If that is not possible, give them a contact for someone who has secured venues for other events. Give your committee members something to work with and particular goals to achieve. “Please contact these five speakers and find out if they are available” will probably yield better results than, “Please find speakers.” Even if you don’t have particular speakers in mind, give the people in charge of finding speakers particular cities, law firms, organizations, or bar associations to start from. Chances are, the people helping you are busy. By giving them a discrete task, you will maximize their efforts by cutting down on wasted time, resources, and energy.

6. Don’t Overuse Your “Superstars”

Every organization has “superstars.” Those people who produce results time after time. They make it seem effortless. This also makes them superstars. But the fact is, it is not effortless. And although you may want to go to those people over and over again, you may overdo it: either by overwhelming them with work or by exhausting them and their resources.

So learn to manage the not-so-superstars. Give them small tasks to complete and make sure they do so. Find out what they are good at and try to tailor their duties to those particular areas. If you really don’t have enough people willing or able to put in the time and energy, recruit new blood, even if on an ad hoc basis. Let your superstars supervise others, which decreases the work load for them but keeps them involved and allows them to jump in if something is falling apart.

7. Keep Track of Progress

Check in regularly with the people around you and check on whether they need help or are struggling. Have regular phone calls and ask people to report on their tasks. Don’t let them say, “Everything’s fine,” and nothing more. Ask for particulars. You should know what parts of the project are truly going fine, and what parts of the project may need extra help further down the line. If something falls apart, you will be better prepared if you saw it coming. In addition, keeping track of progress keeps the people around you on task because they will likely want to have something to report.

8. Make It Replicable

The positive impact of your term after you are gone is just as—if not more—important than your actual term in office. If one of your programs becomes so easy to implement that it can be repeated year after year, successfully, you will have done your community, your Affiliate, and yourself a service. So try to make programs replicable.

First, keep track of vendors, service providers, speakers, and sponsors that you contacted. Keep a record of why each of these people was ultimately involved in the project, or not. Keep in touch with these people and possibly introduce your successor so that they can hit the ground running.

Keep costs as low as possible and create partnerships that can be used year after year. This is particularly important when it comes to venue. Some law schools, for example, have CLE coordinators whose sole task is to help host CLE programs for free or at very low cost to participants. Some restaurants or venues have long-term relationships with bar associations and know about the logistics of hosting particular bar events. By using these types of institutions, you make the project easy to replicate because your successors will have a low-cost venue staffed with knowledgeable individuals.

Identify how, and to whom, you marketed the project. Try to understand which marketing outlets worked and which did not. Keep track of who you contacted to “spread the word.” This information will be key in making the event successful year after year.

Overall, try to create a “project in a box” package. When you hand this over to your successor, chances are he or she will be more than happy to implement a project presented in this way.

As you head into next year, plan the year ahead. Use the tips described above. Create a schedule and stick to it. You should know now when your events will take place. The more specific you can make your calendar of events, the easier it will be for others to help you implement your plans. Make sure everyone knows what they will be doing month-by-month during your term. Then follow up to make sure everyone stays on task. And of course, keep reading The Affiliate newsletter.

To all of you leaders, good luck and see you next year!


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