Gibbel Kraybill & Hess: Home to Four Alumni

By Steve Shenk | July 20th, 2015

Peter and Elvin Kraybill

Peter Kraybill ’97 and Elvin Kraybill ’70, son and father, are law partners in Gibbel, Kraybill & Hess in Pennsylvania (2008 photo).

Four EMU alumni are an important part of a nearly 40-year-old mid-sized law firm – Gibbel Kraybill & Hess LLP − in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Two are founders, another is a founder’s son and the fourth is the firm’s administrator.

Melvin Hess, class of ’68, jokes that he became interested in a law career after arguing with Myron Augsburger when he was president of EMU. “We debated church doctrine, truth and justice,” he says. “I maintained that many Mennonites’ peace values didn’t square with the way they voted at election time.” He was troubled that EMU, in the 1960s, didn’t actively promote the civil rights movement and oppose the Vietnam War.

Elvin Kraybill ’70 first became interested in the law in high school, when he talked with a lawyer who came to campus to judge a debate in which Kraybill participated. He enrolled at EMU as a history major, with the intention of going to law school.

Sue Aeschliman Groff ’79, a social work major, had nothing to do with a law career until four years ago, when Kraybill, whom she knew as a fellow board member at her church, encouraged her to apply to be legal administrator at his firm.

Peter Kraybill ’97, son of one of the firm’s founders, grew up with the law in his blood. At the office, he calls Elvin Kraybill “Dad” when he’s with colleagues but “Elvin” when they are meeting with clients.

How it all started

As an associate in the Lancaster law firm of Wenger & Byler in 1977, Elvin Kraybill went to a tax-law seminar and talked at length with another Lancaster attorney, John Gibbel. “We shared many similar hopes and frustrations related to the legal profession,” recalls Kraybill. Several months later they decided to start their own firm. They invited a law colleague of Kraybill’s, Mel Hess, to join them in a partnership.

The new general-practice firm later adopted a mission statement “to provide excellent legal services that promote justice with integrity.” Gibbel, Kraybill and Hess committed themselves to service, including pro-bono work for worthy causes, and strong client relationships. They built on their deep roots in the community.

In 1988, the firm moved into a new office building on Orange Street, across from the Lancaster County Courthouse.

Today, the firm has 14 attorneys and 18 support staff and a satellite office in Lititz. They serve a city of 60,000 people and a surrounding county of 530,000. They divide themselves into four service groups – elder law, complex business succession and estate planning, corporations and organizations, and advocacy.

Elvin Kraybill

Elvin Kraybill went to law school at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, graduating in 1973. “While at EMU I read the Washington Post and often visited D.C., so I wanted to go to law school there,” he says. “But I missed the small on-campus community of EMU.” Georgetown was the largest law school in the country at the time.

Kraybill, who grew up on a farm in Lancaster County, returned to his community with his wife, Esther Graber ’70, for his first job after law school.

Today he specializes in estate planning, real-estate transactions, nonprofit organizations and planning successions for family businesses. He has served on the boards of Philhaven Hospital, Goshen (Ind.) College and EMU. He has been president of the Lancaster Bar Association.

His pro-bono work includes MidPenn Legal Services, which provides legal counsel to low-income people. It dismays him that the demand for legal services keeps growing while government funding for such services keeps being cut.

Melvin Hess

Hess, who also grew up on a farm in Lancaster County, attended EMU for two years and finished his undergraduate study at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. He went to law school at Seattle University, graduating in 1976. His first job, like Kraybill’s, was at Wenger & Byler.

He specializes in litigation, which often finds him in the courtroom, dealing with construction and real estate disputes, complex commercial issues, serious personal injury and wrongful death claims, civil rights issues, and criminal law. He goes to court in state and federal cases and has argued numerous cases before the appellate courts in Pennsylvania.

Hess has also handled hundreds of municipal hearings, representing landowners, neighbors and municipalities in all aspects of the zoning and land-development process.

Peter Kraybill

Peter Kraybill, after majoring in English/journalism at EMU, went to Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, graduating in 2001. He married a fellow student, Maria Kalugina, who had come from Russia on a scholarship from the U.S. State Department.

The couple went to Moscow for two years, where Peter worked for a Chicago-based international law firm, Baker & McKenzie. He also taught in a master’s program for Eastern European attorneys at the Moscow campus of the University of California at Davis.

After Peter and Maria returned to Pennsylvania, Peter joined his father’s law firm in 2003. He became a partner in 2008. “Dad’s office is just a few steps away from my office,” Peter says. “I’ve learned a lot from him, and he’s been gracious to me.”

He leads the practice group at his firm that addresses the needs of corporations, nonprofit organizations and churches. He helps his clients with contracts, real-estate transactions, asset purchases, leasing and invoicing.

Peter is active in the area of brand names and trademarks. In fact, last year he was one of the top 5,000 most active trademark attorneys with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is a regular presenter at the annual trademarks seminar in Philadelphia for intellectual property attorneys.

Sue Groff

Groff, who spent her entire career in social-service agencies, was impacted by a book that she and other EMU students studied during their time in Washington Study-Service Year (now Washington Community Scholars’ Center). It was Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. “His concepts continue to influence how I interact and relate to others,” she says.

A native of Stryker, Ohio, she is married to Marlin Groff ’79.

Before joining the law firm in 2011, Groff was associate executive director of the Lancaster and Chester Counties branch of Bridge of Hope, a national church-based approach to ending homelessness. Prior to that, she was community relations coordinator for Friendship Community of Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, which serves people with developmental disabilities.

Groff’s responsibilities at Gibbel Kraybill & Hess include financial planning and controls, personnel administration, and managing technology and physical facilities. She shares responsibility with the firm’s partners for strategic planning, practice management and marketing.