Since he became dean of William & Mary Law School in July 2020, A. Benjamin Spencer has deftly juggled his considerable duties leading America’s first law school with his service as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. Both jobs are rewarding, but one reward stood out this summer as he began his fourth year as dean.
In June, he learned of his promotion from captain to major.
As someone who entered the military at the age of 41 as a first lieutenant and then became a captain 18 months later, the promotion means a lot to Spencer.
“It’s an affirmation of the value of my contribution to the JAG Corps and to the Army,” Spencer said. “I joined later in life and my rank was always behind my age contemporaries, so in addition to being an affirmation to get promoted my first look, it helps me catch up, moving from a company grade junior officer to a field grade officer.”
Spencer comes from a family devoted to service. His father and grandfather served in the military, and his father was not only the first African American federal judge in Virginia and first African American chief judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, but also a member of the JAG Corps.
“I just like serving; I come from a family of public servants and want to carry on the legacy,” Spencer said. “It’s a different experience that not everybody gets to have.”
Service also means that Spencer can lead and practice at the same time. “I went to law school to practice, so I didn’t plan on being an academic, but here I am,” he said. “I enjoy continuing to be a lawyer and to be able to serve the country and other soldiers.”
Spencer works for the government’s Appellate Division handling criminal cases on behalf of the Army’s side when convicted soldiers file an appeal. His dual roles perfectly reflect a motto of the Reserves — “Twice the Citizen” — captured in the two-headed eagle that adorns the official shoulder sleeve insignia of the U.S. Army Reserve Command.
“Everyone in the Reserves is juggling two careers, which may occasionally intersect or have to be done at the same time,” Spencer said. “It is unusual for legal academics to do this, although there are others in legal academia who are serving in the JAG Corps, but reservists have to juggle these things all the time.”
Spencer is well aware of how his military service impacts his leadership at W&M Law School — and vice versa. He applies the leadership skills he learns in the military to what he does at William & Mary. As an example, he cites the Army’s After-Action Review (AAR) as a good practice.
“An AAR is where we look at what we just did as an institution and then ask, ‘What was it that we were trying to do?’ ‘What did we accomplish?’ ‘What were the things we want to sustain?’ ‘What are the things we want to improve?’”
The chain of command likewise resonates with Spencer. Although some civilian leadership styles are more egalitarian, or flat, he considers himself more traditional in terms of chain of command and delegating to faculty colleagues and administrators.
The approach works at William & Mary Law School, and was a distinct draw when Spencer was considering the job as dean.
“This is a very military-friendly place, which is important to me,” Spencer said. “The location is near military installations in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, and a lot of service members come here as students, as well as a handful of faculty and staff who have served.”
Spencer is especially proud of the work of the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic. Recently, he championed the creation of the Office of Military and Veteran Affairs led by alumnus and Visiting Professor of the Practice Michael Dick ’06, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel.
“Mike has been critical to supporting the military and veteran students on an informal basis, just given his background as a retired Marine Corps colonel,” Spencer said. “I thought it was important to formally recognize the work that he was already doing.”
Spencer praises military students for fitting in at W&M Law School from day one and for their work supporting other students through the Military and Veterans Law Society. He credits their success to focused drive and determination as well as understanding of the concept of mission.
“We’re mission driven here as well; there’s an esprit de corps at the law school,” Spencer said. “Teamwork, camaraderie and the willingness to support each other are big parts of being in the military, and that’s the best way to practice law and the best way to get through law school.”
William & Mary’s dedication to service through its citizen lawyer ethos resonates well with prospective students, and Spencer considers William & Mary to be a welcoming community where military students can fit right in, build a good support system for each other, and emerge with great success.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to be dean and for military veteran students to learn the law,” Spencer said.