In pursuit of excellence: Army Reserve lawyer first Black dean of country’s oldest law school

By Master Sgt. Michel Sauret | July 31, 2020

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — When he returns home from work, Benjamin Spencer doesn’t slump on the couch to watch television and relax. He goes to the kitchen, and he cooks. It’s a labor of love. He has mouths to feed: nine children and two adults – including his own – to be exact.

“The one thing I love about Ben is that he puts his family first,” said Marlette, his wife of 19 years.

“He works, puts his heart and soul into his job and comes home, walks through the door, doesn’t change his clothes … washes his hands and goes into the kitchen to start cooking,” she said.

When Spencer tackles the stove, he balances cookware and pans. As he dishes out plates – it could be spaghetti or stroganoff or lemon pepper chicken, depending on his mood and the ingredients available – the kids come around to grab and eat. Dinner is hardly ever a sit-down experience.

“It’s active … We’re our own show. We’re our own circus,” said Marlette to describe the scene.

The house is filled with laughter and noise, sometimes teasing among the kids, and always music. They enjoy lofi hip-hop, something with a beat, rhythm and blues, or 1970s funk.

In addition to music, their six-bedroom house (soon to be seven) still holds evidence of a recent move. Boxes are stacked in different areas waiting to be unpacked. Spencer, his wife and nine children – ages two to 17 – moved from Massachusetts to Virginia in late June for his new job, all in the midst of a world-wide pandemic.

In July, Spencer became the first Black dean hired at the William & Mary Law School, the oldest law school in the country, among a dozen candidates who interviewed for the job.

Spencer comes from a lineage of firsts: His father was the first African-American chief judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, and previously the first African-American federal judge in Virginia. His grandfather was the first African-American professor at the University of Notre Dame. William & Mary is the first school where Spencer has served as a faculty member that has hired a Black dean.

He takes up his love of law after his own father, who was a prosecutor and passionate about defending the law, especially against corrupt public officials.

“He just thought that (corruption) was a breach of the public trust … He had this righteousness about the public’s interest and justice … That’s how he was as a judge (later). People knew he was going to be fair. I had that instilled in me that there are rules and we have laws. We have a society that depends on people following those laws,” Spencer said.

Yet, when reflecting on his own “first” achievement, Spencer doesn’t congratulate himself. Instead, he sees this – as well as everything else he does – as an opportunity to serve others.

“I’m not really into stories about myself … It’s not about what I’ve achieved and accomplished,” he said during a phone interview.

Rather, he sees this as a calling to live as an example for other Black men and women who are watching. He wants to fight to open doors for others.

“That's just part of our ethos as Black folks. We have a thing of lifting as we climb. As we go to the next level, we have to kind of reach back and pull somebody up behind,” he said.

Spencer grew up in Hampton, Virginia, which he called a diverse community. It was a military town, so he’s thankful he never confronted many of the overt racist conflicts other Black Americans – including his own wife – saw growing up. Marlette lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the 80s where she faced Klan activity firsthand.

As Spencer became a more prominent voice and influence in law schools and academia, he saw more opportunities to promote equity in the hiring of prominent Black professionals. He was often involved in hiring committees where he was the only Black voice in the group. He challenged unconscious biases that permeated his surroundings. These biases were often subtle and unnoticed by others.

He remembers one hiring committee in particular where a Black faculty candidate was criticized for having work that was mostly “descriptive” – meaning it exposed a particular problem in law without offering a specific solution – but then witnessed the praise of a White faculty candidate for same type of work. The main difference between the two was the color of their skin, not the type of work they had been known for.

He considered himself an advocate for others to find stellar Black professionals and help bring them into the hiring conversation.

So he recognizes his calling to fight for others’ opportunities, just as he credits those who fought to hire him as a law professor at various universities over the years.

Although, according to his wife, Spencer’s accomplishments don’t require anyone else’s endorsement.

“His resume is ridiculous. Ridiculous! He works. He’s just the best at what he does each and every time because he has to be … Most of us would love to have a little bit of what he has done,” she said.

Spencer is 45 years old but looks a decade younger. He graduated from Harvard Law School, specializes in the law of federal civil procedure, worked as an associate at a law firm in D.C., taught at the University of Virginia where he was recognized as a distinguished professor, completed a year as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, served as a director of the Francis Lewis Law Center and the associate dean for research at Washington and Lee University, received multiple awards for excellence both as a faculty member and as a legal writer, and he joined the U.S. Army Reserve just before he turned 41.

Both his father and grandfather also served in the Army, so he grew up with a desire and appreciation for service. He didn’t join until later because juggling a law career with marriage and young children at home wasn’t feasible post 9/11.

“I always said, I was not going to marry a military man,” said Marlette, who is the daughter of a U.S. Air Force master sergeant. “He held off for years from joining, once again putting his family first … but the dream. I knew the dream was in him.”

When he worked at the University of Virginia, Spencer’s desire to join the military was reignited. The school for Army lawyers – the Judge Advocate Genera’s (JAG) Corps – was co-located on the UVA campus. Spencer watched from his window JAG officers running or in formation each morning.

“That’s how I got the bug,” he said.

Spencer had just finished a period of pro-bono work for the federal government, so he wanted to return to public service. He joined the Army Reserve to serve people and to serve his country. Similarly, he views his responsibilities as a lawyer the same way. Lawyers are servants of others, standing up for victims against violators of the law. Service to others was an ethos instilled by his family.

“Everybody that raised me or influenced me: they were serving others,” Spencer said. “I couldn’t look at myself if I wasn’t trying to do something to help other people, or use my talent for that purpose.”

He spent more than a year to train physically to join the Army. He lost 27 pounds, and he shipped out to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended basic training with a bunch of young men and women in their mid-twenties, while he was over 40.

He held the rank of first lieutenant but was promoted to captain within ten months of joining. As a JAG officer today, Spencer works for the Government’s Appellate Division handling criminal cases on behalf of the Army’s side whenever convicted Soldiers file an appeal.

Most of his cases are handled through legal writing and correspondence, not in a courtroom. Each case can take about two months during the appeal process. In November, he joined the Appellate Division in a position intended for a major, one level above his own rank.

This devotion to service has required the very best of Spencer, he said, but it has also required much of his wife, especially when COVID-19 swept through the nation. Spencer was teaching at Harvard, coming toward the end of his one-year visiting professorship. When he applied for the dean job at William & Mary, the family didn’t know where they would be living next. What made things even more difficult is when schools closed as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. Their home transformed into a homeschool almost overnight. Marlette went from mother of nine to also teacher of eight, with their two-year-old being too young to attend school yet still big enough to roam the hallways.

The change felt so abrupt, said Marlette. For the first two weeks, some classes didn’t even have materials ready to send home to parents. She resorted to ordering books and materials online from wherever she could. Meanwhile, Spencer continued the interview process for the dean position, which had since moved online.

Months into the hiring process, he finally heard the news: He got the job.

“I was just elated, because we really didn’t have a good plan … We were just relieved to know what our future was and happy that it was going to be this,” Spencer said.

Now that most universities and schools look to balance physical and virtual classrooms to expand their learning environment, Spencer has a significant task ahead of him. He wants to build the William & Mary Law School to have the most influential faculty in the country, all in a time when COVID-19 brings new challenges to educational institutions, the economy and personal lives. Spencer, however, has no doubt he can tackle and overcome these challenges.

“It’s all about excellence. If I get a position, you know it’s because I’m the best person for the job. I am an African American, and they’ve hired the best person. So that’s really my focus,” said Spencer.