College grad talks law school: ‘It’s like finals week every week’

James Van Strander spoke to the College about law school, explained the Socratic method of teaching, LSATs and deciding on the right school. (Delisa O’Brien / Staff Photographer)

By Melissa Lim
Correspondent

James Van Strander, a 2007 College alumnus, spoke to students about law school, the application process and his personal experiences in his presentation “How to Get into Law School, Get a Job, and Get Charged with Mail Fraud,” sponsored by the Honors Program in the Library Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 27.

Van Strander advised students interested in law school to “hit the books … (Law school) is very very difficult. It’s like finals week every week.”

The College alumnus, who graduated as a philosophy and English major, is in his final year at Duke Law School, working toward completing the Juris Doctor and Master of Laws program in May, 2011.

Van Strander was straightforward in his presentation on what to expect in law school, guaranteeing that the first year of law school would be “the hardest year of your life.”

According to Van Strander, not only are first-year law school students exposed to many cases and statutes, but they are exposed to cold-calling, a Socratic method of teaching in which the professor calls on an unexpected student, sometimes for the entire class period.

“It has made people cry,” Van Strander said. “It has made people drop out of law school.”

Van Strander, who used to be on the admissions committee in Duke, described the application process, emphasizing the importance of the LSAT and GPA, which count for a total of 90 percent of the application.

“The LSAT is kind of interesting in that you don’t study for it, you practice it,” he said, adding that the three sections are “all very learnable. Practice makes perfect.”

Though some students choose to take courses for the LSAT, Van Strander said he practiced on his own time.

He talked about cover letters of recommendation, the personal statement and the administrative transcript, advising interested students to create a profile at LSAC.org.

In choosing a law school, he advised going to USNews.com to look at law school rankings, employment statistics and cost. He also stressed the importance of deciding on a location, saying that most lawyers practice in the geographic location of their law school.

When looking at law schools, Van Strander visited the University of Virginia, which he described as “very collegial,” and Duke, which had a strong international law program that drew him.

During his first year in the combined JD/LLM program in Duke, he was already able to obtain legal experience by partaking in pro bono work where he prepared taxes for underprivileged families. He also participated in journal competitions in which students’ works can be published.

The law school student took advantage of the summer between his first and second year and explored his areas of interest.

In June, he studied international law at Kitahama Partners in Osaka, Japan in the International Department with English speakers. Although he did not learn much Japanese, he said, “I can order a beer, which got me pretty far.”

In July, as part of his LLM degree, he participated in a summer study at the Asia-America Institute in Transnational Law.

Once he returned from Hong Kong, his job search immediately commenced with 23 screening interviews with firms in New York and New Jersey.

According to Van Strander, Duke has 220 employers come every year to conduct on-campus interviews.

In late October, he received a call-back from his dream job, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom, LLP, in Times Square in New York City, where he worked last summer as an associate in corporate law. As a summer associate, he dealt with hedge funds, private equity, corporate finance, mergers, acquisition, antitrust issues, international arbitration and intellectual property issues.

He gave an example of a legal issue law students might encounter, Weyhrauch v. U.S., in which Bruce Weyhrauch was charged with mail fraud for sending his resume to an oil company while voting on an increased oil tax. Explaining the case, he went on to touch on the importance of federalism, the balance between state and federal government.

Although it is a very competitive environment, Van Strander encouraged interested students to aim for law school, pointing out that it is a versatile degree. He also said the world needs more lawyers, and although it requires hard work, it can be fun.

“Some law schools are really fun,” he said. “Other law schools are where fun goes to die.”

Van Strander is the president of Duke Bar Association and the executive editor for Duke Law and Technology Review, but still makes time to go out with his friends. As the social chair for Phi Alpha Delta, he has organized “BAR reviews,” where a group of students will go to the bars to relax and have fun.

“There’s time,” he said. “You just have to make it.”