What's life like for a part-time law student? Just ask Ryan Groff ’20, part-time law student at New England Law | Boston. But he's also a full-time husband, full-time dad, and full-time paralegal and firm administrator.
As if the challenges of balancing all these roles wasn’t enough, Groff’s passion for innovation has him straining to improve processes in his day-to-day life and eager to help advance the legal profession as a whole.
So how does he do it, and how did he get here?
Keep reading for an innovative inside look at what being a part-time evening law student is like.
A major career change
After graduating from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, Groff spent nine years working at the institution in various roles, from admissions to enrollment to project managing a multi-million dollar grant initiative.
After serving as the founding Administrative Director for Gordon’s Center for Faith and Inquiry, and finishing his master’s in theology in 2010, Groff started teaching, dipping into both online and in-person course work.
But in 2015, Groff found himself at a professional crossroads. He wanted a career change, and his only options seemed to be sticking with teaching or going back to higher education administration.
Then came option number three.
“Out of the blue,” a friend reached out to Groff with an opportunity to join his firm, Knudsen Burbridge, P.C., as an administrator. They also asked him to consider going to law school.
“I spoke to mentors and other friends and family and realized that law really did give me a way to live out my own skill set,” he says. “I wanted something that was intellectually interesting and sustained by curiosity for complex ideas, while also providing practical assistance to those in need.”
Soon the question wasn’t if he would go to law school but how to make it work.
Why part-time law school
“It was a non-negotiable that I find an evening program that allowed me to continue to work and provide for our family,” Groff says. With four children at home, the “traditional” law school route—including taking three years off from work and relying on student loans—just wasn’t going to fly.
For Groff and his wife, Laurie, who also works multiple jobs, it was important to have someone home with the children during the day as well. “As a spouse, it's really been important for me to have somebody that's on the same page,” Groff says. “Laurie and I made the decision to go to law school together.”
With plenty of higher ed experience under his belt, both as a student and educator, Groff knew he wanted the “curricular innovation” of an evening JD and a program attuned to the real-world challenges of going to law school with children, family, and professional responsibilities.
But, ever the academic, Groff first sought to learn as much as he could about what part-time law school would be like. That meant talking to people he could truly relate to: other parents and working professionals in part-time law programs. He recommends anyone considering law school do the same.
“Every single life situation has its benefits and its challenges,” he says. “I have a family. I have other stuff I need to balance. So that's a much different set of factors to consider than someone who's maybe fresh out of college who doesn't have a lot of professional experience.”
Ultimately, Groff found what he was looking for at New England Law | Boston (a Dean’s scholarship helped seal the deal). And his journey as a part-time evening law student began.
Related: Life-Saving Advice for Part-Time Evening Law Students
Life as an evening law student
Balancing life as a parent, husband, and full-time worker is hard, and Groff doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that adding law school to the mix makes things harder.
“It's not going to be your best time of life…I don't think it helps us to lie about that,” he says. “But you know what, life happens in seasons, and you can absolutely do anything for a little bit.”
Groff’s schedule is about as jam-packed as one might expect: he’s busy from about 6:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. during the week, and his weekends are for studying, reading, and writing papers. Not to mention spending time with his family. Of course, his part-time course work is designed for just this sort of lifestyle.
“By and large, faculty are extremely good about making sure their course expectations are set in advance, and they recognize the inflexible nature of an evening student schedule,” he says. “I really appreciate that.”
Still, between commuting to school and working full time, Groff knew it would be challenging to take advantage of opportunities like legal clinics and summer internships—“the stuff that is really important to developing you as a lawyer,” he says.
But even though he doesn’t have a lot of time, Groff makes the most of the time he has. One of the key ways he’s done so is by finding law school faculty mentors. “Those relationships are deeply important. Take time to develop them," he advises other part-time law students.
“I've been grateful for the very personal, very close and caring mentoring that I've received from faculty here,” he says. “That means a lot to me, especially in this [part-time] program.” Faculty have challenged him, extended their professional network to him, and served as “way-makers” to him, as he likes to say.
Groff’s mentors include New England Law Professors Natasha Varyani and Eric Lustig. “Professor Varyani has been extremely generous with her support of my own career path development, from connecting me with her contacts to helping me think through some next steps professionally to what kind of courses I can take,” he says. “Professor Lustig is also one of those folks who's really taken time via email and to sit down in person and help me chat through my interests.”
He has forged meaningful connections with his adjunct professors too, including Thomas Shack III, former Comptroller of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Groff was particularly interested in Professor Shack’s experience at the intersection of business and law. “I think he's an excellent moderator for our intellectual journeys,” Groff says. “[I appreciated] hearing somebody with that level of responsibility work through and help us interact with these ideas of how to run profitable law firms—how to do law as a business but then also how to do law ethically.”
Outside the classroom, Groff also has his “extracurriculars,” including serving as one of a small number of chosen volunteers on the federal Tax Advocacy Panel, where he helps the IRS think through its procedures, processes, and the taxpayer experience.
Groff finds time to get involved on campus too. He served as a student representative for Casetext, a platform that’s spearheading the use of artificial intelligence in legal research. He’s also the head representative for Themis, the bar prep course he appreciates for its innovative “break-the-mold” approach.
He knows many part-time students who are deeply involved in student organizations as well, including as Editor-in-Chief of the New England Law Review and Student Bar Association representatives.
Eager for innovation
The legal industry is known for a lot of things, but being on the technological cutting edge isn’t usually one of them. Groff would like to change that.
“I'm deeply interested in the process of law,” he says. “Who actually does the work? How is a firm run? What kinds of technologies or outsourced vendors can help you do the work of a law firm in a more efficient way?”
But, for Groff, this isn’t just about making law firms more efficient. It’s also about access to justice and making sure the law works for everyone. “The procedure of law is integrally connected to the substance of law,” Groff says, “meaning the way we do it is so much a part of what [the law] actually is.”
Case in point: Groff’s volunteer work with the Tax Advocacy Panel. His subcommittee is examining tax forms and how they guide taxpayers—or not—through their tax requirements. “I care deeply about those types of issues,” Groff says. “Sure, we all have to pay our taxes, but it shouldn't have to be difficult.”
Groff says he would love to see law schools seek out and embrace more innovation in legal education, particularly in part-time online JD programs, because there are many people who would excel in law school and as lawyers if only given the chance.
“I think it was innovative to take traditional programs and break them out to part-time programs to make law school education more affordable and more accessible to more people,” he says. “For me, the next question is, ‘Great, how can we continue to do that work?’”
An eye on the future
After graduating from New England Law, Groff plans to continue at Knudsen Burbridge, P.C., as an associate, focusing on estate planning and administration. He calls it a “natural fit” with his own approach to life and priorities.
“There's a lot of folks who don't have access to good planning,” he says, citing vulnerable populations like the elderly and disabled. “You don't need to have a ton of money to need good financial and estate planning.”
With his passion for changing the status quo, Groff can also see himself dabbling in law firm “design thinking” too. He sees no reason why the legal industry couldn’t approach the “user experience” the same way companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple do.
“It's really important that we as legal professionals think about how our clients are experiencing our services,” Groff says. “Not just that we did their case the way we’re supposed to but that we did it well.”
Learn more about the part-time evening law school experience.