All Fun & Games

For two decades, the innovative Society Program has been transforming students’ experience of Texas Law.

Written by Christopher Roberts
Illustration by Sean McCabe

colorful collage of society games

Jamil Bata was a first-generation graduate student when he arrived at Texas Law in the Fall of 2012, unsure of what a career as a lawyer would truly be like, much less what the experience of law school might have in store. The prospect of finding his way in an incoming class of nearly 400 other aspiring attorneys was intimidating, even for someone as naturally outgoing and gregarious as he was.

But on the first day of orientation, he was introduced to fellow members of the McCormick Society, a group of about 50 fellow first years with whom Bata was going to be share his law school career. He and the other McCormick society members were going to be in classes together, attending social functions together, and participating as a group in a wide range of public service activities, outings in Austin, and even friendly athletic competitions.

“It was awesome,” Bata recalls thinking.

Of course, Bata and his McCormick companions weren’t the only ones enjoying this special small-group arrangement. The entire school was doing it.

Making the Big Class Smaller

Texas Law alumni who graduated before 2004 may have no idea that for the last two decades one of the school’s central features is its innovative Society Program.

It was that summer that then-Dean Bill Powers created a working group, led by Prof. Jane Cohen, to tackle the perceived problem that students were feeling a little lost upon arrival at a big law school. “The size of our student body and our high student-faculty ratio are ob¬stacles to student-faculty interaction,” the group wrote in one of its reports.

“Students want more contact with faculty, and with upper-class students as mentors,” the report continued. “We need to create smaller units of academic, intellectual, and social interaction among students and faculty.”

The group come up with an innovative proposal. Inspired by the collegiate systems of large universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, they landed on an idea to create eight societies, into which incoming students would be sorted, with each society overseen by a combination of upper-class students, faculty advisors, and what the group termed “community fellows,” alumni or other legal professionals in the community who would work with the new student groups.

Powers was sold on the idea right away, but needed a full-time person with the talent to turn the vision into a reality.

“Bill came to me with this basic notion and gave me a huge amount of trust to make it happen,” reflects David Sokolow, the longtime and beloved professor of contracts and business associations. “I wasn’t an administrator, but I knew our students and I knew I could do this.”

Putting Students at the Center

Assisted by his former student, Allyson Childs (now Hale) ’95, whom he convinced to run the new program with him, Sokolow focused on creating the most crucial element of the Society Program: the student mentors.

He took his cue from the school’s Teaching Quizmaster model, in which 2L and 3L students taught legal writing to first-year students in the days before the school’s current legal writing program was created. “I wanted TQs,” says Sokolow, “but for the social instruction that’s necessary for law school, developing friendships and building the knowledge to navigate the complicated space of law school.”

The commitment was serious. Student mentors would see to it that every incoming freshman made at least ten contacts with other incoming students in the weeks before orientation so that they would arrive on the first day knowing those people. They would meet weekly, sometimes daily, with the 1Ls, helping them adjust to the academic, social, and personal challenges of law school. They served as connectors for the new students to the school’s resources and offices. It was a heavy responsibility.

But that level of investment made an immediate impact—and a huge impression.

“It’s just so special to connect with people that have literally experienced what you’re experiencing only one year before,” says Bata, the 2012 first-year who graduated in 2015 and is now a vice president and senior counsel in the Dallas office of Goldman Sachs. “It transforms the experience when people are that accessible. Law school is stereotypically intimidating, but Texas Law, as incredible a school as it is, isn’t like that. And the societies are why.”

Bata’s first-year experience made such an impression that he became a mentor himself, and later ran for, and won, the role of class president. “My time in the Society Program changed the direction of my law school career.”

Game On

Sophie Hess ’25 is a coordinator for the Green Society. (See sidebar on p. 29 for the names, and namesakes, of the eight societies.) She concurs that the societies are vitally important to the culture and success of student life at the law school, but she’s quick to point out how much fun is involved.

“The Society Games are one of the best parts of the year,” says the Lexington, Mass., native.

Hess is referring to the day-long annual celebration in which all eight societies vie in a series of light-hearted competitions to claim bragging rights for the year. Events include, among others, sack races, a water-balloon toss, Pictionary, and, for a grand finale, a tug-of-war that puts everyone—participants and spectators alike—in high spirits.

“The games themselves are silly,” Hess concedes, “but the camaraderie is serious. And that carries into the classroom, into student organizations and journals, and, of course, into community projects.” 

Doing Well by Doing Good

At the very start, a key component of the Society Program was service in the community.

Each society chose a pro bono project, which through the years ranged from volunteering at Casa Marianella or Habitat for Humanity, taking up collections for the Caritas of Austin food pantry, working with veterans and those with severe disabilities, and doing legal work helping low-income families with wills and estates. Today, students do this vital work through the school’s Richard and Ginni Mithoff Pro Bono Program. 

The Great Eight

In 2004, a working group of students and faculty determined that “each society will have conferred on it by the Dean the surname of an individual whose reputation for achieved excellence has become woven into the fabric of the Law School’s own reputation for excellence.”

Gloria K. Bradford ’54
A classmate of both Heman Sweatt and Virgil Lott, she was the first Black woman to graduate from Texas Law, and the first to try a case in Harris County.

Carlos Cadena ’40
Cadena, with co-counsel Gustavo Garcia, became the first Mexican American attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning their case unan­imously.

Leon Green ’15
Co-founder of Texas Law Review with Profs. Ira Hildebrand, Charles Potts, and Judge Ireland Graves. His students include Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens, Arthur Goldberg, and Tom C. Clark ’22.

Helen Hargrave ’26
As head librarian, Hargrave was the first woman in the school’s administration and played a vital role designing the Tarlton Law Library and its collection.

Gus Hodges ’32
Prof. Hodges was a favorite of students and one of the law school’s most colorful professors, favoring red socks, polka-dot bow ties, and a trademark handlebar mustache, which he twirled while lecturing.

Antonio “T.J.” Martinez ’96 *
Ten days after passing the bar, he joined the Society of Jesus, later founding Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory to help impoverished children before passing away in 2014 from stomach cancer.

Alice Sheffield ’18
Sheffield, the youngest woman certified to practice before the Texas Supreme Court, had a successful career at Gulf Oil Corporation, eventually rising to associate general counsel.

John Sutton ’41 
An F.B.I. special agent in WWII, Sutton joined the faculty in 1957 and served as dean from 1979 to 1984. Although he retired in 1988, he taught part-time until 2009.

*Editor’s Note: The McCormick Society became the Martinez Society in 2018.

For Elizabeth Bangs, the school’s dean of student affairs, who has overseen the Society Program since 2013, the service element has always been especially meaningful. “Service to others, no matter your intellectual pursuits and eventual career path, is an important part of this profession and an essential part of our culture,” she says. “Getting that exposure from the start of law school both through our amazing pro bono program and through our societies, is invaluable.”

Making Partner(ship)

Bangs is quick to point out that many of the opportunities the societies enjoy come about through the support the program receives, both within the school and from the extended legal community, especially the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. The firm, going back to when it was known as Fulbright and Jaworski, has been a generous sponsor of the program from the first.

“The firm is so proud to have sponsored The Society Program since its inception two decades ago,” says Richard Krumholz ’92, who is the global head of litigation and disputes in the firm’s Dallas office and has remained involved at the law school as a volunteer and mentor. “The school has been critical to recruiting and developing the ‘best-of-the-best’ for more than a century, and this program has been vital to fostering a community built on inclusion and meaningful connections. We look forward to playing a meaningful part in this exceptional program for many years to come!”

The financial support the firm has provided covers the cost of the many Society Program events throughout the year—including the colorful and distinctive Society tee shirts that members wear to show off their society affiliation.

Strength in Numbers

It’s no surprise students take pride in their society and being part of the program. After two decades, more than 6,000 graduates have a society affiliation. For some, it continues after law school. “Some of my best friends are the people I met in my society on day one of law school,” boasts Bata.

On top of that, dozens of faculty have served as advisors to the societies, including some—such as Michael Sturley and Jennifer Laurin—who have been known to roll up their sleeves and get on the line for that (in)famous tug-of-war.

“Really, that’s the legacy of the Society Program,” muses Bangs. “To see first-year students and upper-class students, along with faculty, working that hard, side-by-side, literally pulling together in one direction, I can’t think of a better metaphor for what this place is all about.” 

Category: Features