Law School students organize for higher wages

law school building

Since the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year, a coalition of student workers at the College of William and Mary Law School have been organizing for higher wages. While Law School Dean and Trustee Professor A. Benjamin Spencer unofficially committed to raising wages, it is unclear how much the rates will increase and when.

All wage-earning student workers at the Law School make $12 an hour — Virginia’s current minimum wage. Students are not permitted to work more than 16 hours per week. Wages are funded by a variety of sources, but departments with extra money are not allowed to pay their workers more than the base amount. Organizers argue that with these work restrictions, students are unable to cover the cost of living in Williamsburg.

Kyle Hyde J.D. ’24, a fellow for the Center for Racial and Social Justice and one of the leaders of the movement for higher wages, believes that the current rules serve as barriers to accessibility.

“Law school is inaccessible for a lot of people,” Hyde said. “In fact, the dean of the Law School has written articles about how inaccessible it is. And one way that students try to mitigate that is by working while they’re in law school. But there’s a lot of restrictions on how much students can work.”

He described how students who work maximum hours and make minimum wage are not able to afford the price of an average studio apartment in Williamsburg.

“A lot of the students that we’ve talked to in our organizing, they have jobs because they need them. This isn’t just a fun thing for them to do in between their classes, but a lot of students actually have these jobs because they need to supplement their income so they can afford to stay in school,” Hyde said.

Working at the Law School provides students with the opportunity to not only make money, but gain experience with skills such as legal writing and research, which are important for their resume. Skye McCollum J.D. ’24 also works for the CRSJ and explained that many research fellows must make major sacrifices in order to get that experience.

“Some of them are on food stamps because they can’t afford to eat,” McCollum said. “And there’s a lot of other people that don’t even seek employment at the school. They’ll go get a job, like a part time job, at any restaurant or something in the town, because they can make more doing that even than working at the school, doing something that could help actually further their career. It’s like they’re sacrificing that just because they need money.”

“Some of them are on food stamps because they can’t afford to eat.”

Beyond cost of living arguments, student employees believe that their work is simply worth more than minimum wage. Students fill a variety of roles as research assistants, administrative aides and student ambassadors. Additionally, second- and third-year legal research and writing fellows — who do not make minimum wage, but instead receive a $2,400 stipend per semester — are needed to teach all first-year students how to do legal writing with the Bluebook. According to Hyde, these jobs not only save costs, but add immense value to the school.

“Instead of the faculty doing their research, a lot of professors have their students do the research. And so instead of paying them the faculty salary, they pay them $12 an hour. And the same thing with the legal research and writing fellows, instead of paying them a professor’s salary to teach this class, they rely on [students]. The school could not function without the legal research and writing fellows, they’re vital to the curriculum,” Hyde said. 

A petition started by the organizers further explains how student workers impact the Law School.

“Research assistants help faculty publish quality scholarship on important legal issues, increasing the profile of the university,” the petition reads. “Legal Research and Writing Fellows also add significant value to the law school. W&M Law School promotes the legal practice curriculum as a distinguishing feature of the education it provides, and fellows provide indispensable support in laying the foundation for legal writing and lawyering skills.”

For Gray Whitsett J.D. ’24, a fellow at the Election Law Program, the realization that his work was worth more than minimum wage encouraged him to get involved with the organizing. 

“When I first came on, the professor that hired me, who I’ve been working for, said right from the get-go that she wishes she could pay us more and that she feels like it is definitely not a minimum wage level position, even though it is a student position. And that always kind of stuck in my brain as like, I wonder what that’s all about,” Whitsett said.

The idea to organize emerged after April 12, 2023, when Spencer hosted a “State of the Law School Address” to answer student questions. Hyde submitted a question about why raising student wages was not a priority. According to Hyde, Spencer responded that he did not know if he was the final decision maker for student wages or if main campus would have a problem with these changes.

Law School Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Doris Taylor confirmed that the dean of the Law School has the final decision over how much students are paid.

“First and foremost, we must adhere to wage laws within the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Taylor said. “Beyond that requirement, the Dean has ultimate authority on all law school wages.”

At the April address, Spencer did not agree to prioritize student wages, but hinted at reconsidering the issue in the fall. In response to this, Hyde and a few other students began organizing at the beginning of the fall 2023 semester. 

“After that ‘State of the Law School Address’ where we kind of formally asked him to reconsider raising student wages, and he said no, that’s when we decided to get our petition going,” Hyde said.

Aug. 30, 2023, Hyde published the petition on to show community support for a $20 hourly student wage. 

“We, the undersigned, include students, workers, community members, and organizations within the William & Mary Law School Community,” the petition starts. “We are not only student employees but students who believe our classmates should be able to pay their rent from the money they earn working for the law school. The current pay scale does not reflect respect or appreciation for the vital work student employees do for the law school. During the State of the Law School Address, you indicated that raising student wages was not your top priority but was something you would reconsider in the fall. We ask you to reconsider raising student wages.”

The petition currently has 166 signatures and there is a coalition of students working to advocate for higher wages. While they come from a variety of backgrounds and jobs, Whitsett believes that those who are involved share a frustration with not being properly compensated.

“And I think a lot of people feel overworked and undervalued often, in law school in particular. And I have felt that at times, and it was important to me to work with others who might feel the same way and seek solutions on our own,” Whitsett said.

“And I think a lot of people feel overworked and undervalued often, in law school in particular. And I have felt that at times, and it was important to me to work with others who might feel the same way and seek solutions on our own.”

After the petition surpassed 100 signatures, the organizers requested a meeting with Spencer. They also presented to the Student Bar Association, which voted to support the organizers and send a representative to the meeting with the dean. SBA members chose then-Secretary and current-President Olivia Menosky J.D. ’25 to represent the organization. 

“Most of the members of the Student Bar Association are students who are also working in addition to being students. For example, I work at the circulation desk, I’ve worked there since being in law school — it was one of my first things that I did when I got to the law school, was knowing that I had to get a job to help pay for expenses. So I’d say that it is an issue that definitely affects a lot of our members. And I would say 100 percent of the student body is for increasing student wages,” Menosky said. 

Oct. 23, 2023, a group of student workers and Menosky met with Spencer and other deans to discuss student wages. Spencer remarked that he would commit to raising wages, though he did not mention a specific dollar amount. 

“We formally asked Dean Spencer to commit to raising wages from $12 to $20 an hour. And he told us no, but he did in this meeting pledge — commit — he committed to substantially increasing student wages, those were his exact words,” Hyde said.

In an email to The Flat Hat, Spencer maintained this commitment. 

“Recently, the William & Mary Law School leadership team and I had the privilege of engaging in a meaningful dialogue with our students regarding the increase in student employee wages,” he wrote. “We are pleased to announce our plans to increase their wages in the upcoming year. This decision underscores our acknowledgment of the tremendous value our students bring to the law school community. They contribute far beyond the classroom; they play a crucial role in creating a dynamic and supportive community at our institution.”

Following the meeting, the organizers solicited around 80 students to send thank you letters to Spencer to demonstrate that the issue is deeply felt among the school. 

The Law School’s budget process will begin in March and wage increases are not likely to come until after then. In the meantime, Hyde listed a few actions the administration could make to indicate that they have a good faith interest in higher pay. These actions include allowing departments with extra funds to increase the pay of their workers and sending a campus-wide email announcing a commitment to raising wages.

One of the students’ primary demands is to raise hourly wages to $20 an hour and legal research and writing fellow stipends to $3,600 a semester. Though the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would gradually increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, students say this is still not enough to cover costs of living. 

“Just like when they raised the minimum wage to $12 an hour here, it was like the semester before that took effect, they raised their student pay from like 11 to $12. And they used that as like, ‘see we raised it.’ You raised it to what it was about to be legally required. So I have hopes that they’re going to raise it to $15 within the next couple of years, but that’s not enough,” McCollum said.

In preparation for the October meeting, students created a Reddit thread to gather information about what students at other schools make. 

“I don’t know that we got a single response that was below $12. Twelve dollars was like the lowest that they would pay. A lot of them paid 15, 18. The administration hated that we used the University of Virginia as an example, that they paid 20 to $25 an hour,” Hyde said. 

Spencer elaborated that the size of the increase will depend on admissions.

“The exact amount of the wage increase is still under consideration and will be influenced by this year’s admissions cycle outcomes,” he wrote. “The funds we receive from admissions are integral to our financial planning and directly impact our capacity to provide enhanced support for our students, including adjustments to their wages.”

“The exact amount of the wage increase is still under consideration and will be influenced by this year’s admissions cycle outcomes.”

Along with a wage increase, students are hoping to be included in budget conversations going forward. Many have expressed frustration with not knowing the sources of their income. 

“I think what we really want to fight for is just to set a precedent of having students in the room when those budget decisions are made, that students should get a say in how their tuition dollars are spent,” McCollum said. “And it’s been even hard to just get them to tell us where the pot of money comes from.”

McCollum, along with many other students, got involved with this organizing after helping the College’s dining workers unionize

“It’s over $18 an hour — the starting minimum wage now for dining workers, which is amazing,” McCollum said. “And they fought really hard for that. And I was just really grateful to be there and get to experience that. But then I go back to the Law School and it’s like, ‘well, I’m making $12 an hour.’”

McCollum explained that while the dining workers were able to collectively bargain for their wages, student workers at the Law School are not allowed to do the same since they are Virginia state employees. 

“Right now, we don’t have what the dining workers had, we don’t have that same right to collectively bargain. In fact, the school’s not allowed legally to bargain with us. But we are still stakeholders in this institution. We still pay a lot of money to go here. And, you know, they would not speak to donors to the school the same way that I think the administration speaks to their employees,” McCollum said. 

A proposed bill in the Virginia legislature would legalize collective bargaining for public employees. But even if the bill passes, and if wages for law students are increased, many of those involved in the organizing will not be there to benefit. Nevertheless, they are putting in the work to make a change for future students. 

“It’s not just a pet project,” Hyde said. “This is something that we all care about. And most of us are not going to reap these benefits. Most of us are third-year law students who are sick and tired of getting minimum wage for work that if the work we do was contracted out to attorneys to do, they would bill hundreds of dollars an hour.”


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