Days On the Hill, Nights at GW Law

Like a lot of people in Washington, DC, Ryan Stalnaker carries two phones.

“This one is for work,” he says, holding up a fairly battered Blackberry with a scratched up screen. “This one is for normal life,” he says, holding up a much nicer looking iPhone.

While earning his J.D. in GW Law’s evening program as a candidate in the class of 2014, Ryan has spent his daytime hours as the Legislative Director for two separate United States Congressmen from Texas. When you consider how much of his time he spends either on the Hill or on his course load at GW Law, it’s not surprising that the phone Ryan uses for his personal life looks like it just came right out of the box.

“I don’t use this one nearly as much,” Ryan says. “Fortunately, I have an incredibly supportive and understanding wife.”

Ryan’s public service sensibilities began to develop during his freshman year at Texas Tech, which was the same year that the 2000 presidential election was going through the Florida recount. Like the rest of the country, Ryan sat through a month and a half of hanging chads, contentious debate, and competing court cases while waiting to see who had actually won the election.  Eight months later, the September 11th terrorist attacks only galvanized him further.

“I got fired up,” Ryan says. “It began to occur to me that working on Capitol Hill could afford me a front row seat to history and to participate in the policy-making process.”

An internship with Representative John Carter during his undergrad years led to a position as a staff assistant in Carter’s DC office. “I started at the bottom,” Ryan says. “Staff assistant is very much the bottom rung on the ladder.”

He has since worked his way up a few rungs, quickly moving up to the position of Legislative Correspondent, which among other duties, involves handling letters and inquiries from Representative Carter’s constituents. An L.C. often has to write the official responses to constituent concerns, so if sometime between the years 2005 and 2007 you sent an e-mail or letter to Rep. Carter’s office, the measured response was probably written by Ryan. He was later promoted to Legislative Assistant, working on legislation involving the budget, financial services, energy and the environment, homeland security, housing, and transportation.

In 2010, Ryan was offered the position of Legislative Director for Representative John Culberson. Ryan moved down Independence Avenue into Rep. Culberson’s office in the Rayburn Building and spent the next 19 months offering advice on policy and helping to manage the Congressman’s subcommittee assignments on the House Appropriations Committee.

Although Ryan had thought about law school since his sophomore year at Texas Tech, working on Capitol Hill encouraged him to make more concrete plans.

“GW Law seemed like the perfect choice for a lot of reasons, but an important one is the extensive nature of the alumni network,” says Ryan. “You can find alumni placed in government agencies, in private firms, internal counsel, or even alumni who aren’t practicing. There is a huge network to reach out to for an informational interview, or to get a fresh perspective on law or legislation. And the faculty is also front and center on Capitol Hill. GW Law professors are often called to testify before Congressional Committees, you see them quoted in newspapers, and they are widely published in legal journals. They are active in DC and in the legal community, and these are the sort of professors that you want to have if you are earning a J.D.”

Ryan has managed to balance his work on the Hill with his evening classes, although this can sometimes be a challenge. “There have been a few occasions where I rush out of class and go online so I can send vote recommendations and follow the House Floor proceedings,” he says. “Then I just have to block that out and continue with class.”

Earning his J.D. has given him new perspectives on his work on the Hill. “A lot of the cases that we study are based around foundational laws or governing statutes, and many of these same laws and statutes are re-authorized or amended during the legislative process. It’s rare that your education and your job synchronize like that, but it happens quite a bit for me.”

The law school experience has been challenging to Ryan, but as a Legislative Director, challenges are part of the job.  “Work on the Hill is an inch deep and a mile wide,” says Ryan.  “You get handed issues every day that are completely new to you, and law school isn’t much different.”

Ryan has received a great deal of support from both Culberson and Carter while earning his J.D.  “Working for people who understand being a lawyer and a law student has been really important,” says Ryan. “Mr. Culberson and Mr. Carter are both lawyers, and Mr. Carter was a judge. Both of them remember what it’s like, and they both know the importance of a legal education and that every class is crucial.”

In August, Ryan returned to Representative Carter’s office as his Legislative Director and is currently focusing on defense and homeland security policy matters.  With Mr. Carter’s selection as chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, Ryan is readying himself for new challenges on Capitol Hill and GW Law. 


-- Adam Dawson