Post by Anna Jirschele, ISCOTUS Editor and 2L at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
The annual Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair took place last weekend in Washington, D.C., and the guest of honor was the Supreme Court’s very own Justice Elena Kagan. Often interviews with Supreme Court justices center on the work of the Supreme Court. Justice Kagan’s interview at the EJW Conference was different. For that hour, she was just Elena Kagan discussing her life story.
Justice Kagan was born in raised in New York City. Her father was an attorney and her mother was a teacher. She joked that her mother was always her toughest critic when it came to writing and she instilled in her the importance of “edit, edit, edit.” The more you edit, the better your work gets, she said. Justice Kagan went on to discuss the importance of her own education. “I went to law school for all the wrong reasons,” she confessed. But once at Harvard Law School, she found her passion. She realized that with a law degree she could truly make a difference in the world and help people.
Throughout her interview, Justice Kagan spoke in an understated way with sincerity and humor about her accomplishments–among them becoming the first female dean of Harvard Law and the first female Solicitor General of the United States. She offered a myriad of advice to an audience packed with law students hanging on her every word. She believes law students are “too risk averse” and too quick to say no to an opportunity because “that’s not in my plan,” noting that the best opportunities are the ones you didn’t expect. She never spent more than six years in a position because she has wanted to constantly be trying something new where the learning curve is steep. When asked by the moderator about her current job being a lifetime appointment, Justice Kagan joked, “well, it’s not like you can say ‘call back later’ to the President when he calls.” The audience erupted in laughter when she said she’s lucky she really likes her position serving on the High Court.
Justice Kagan began discussing her tenure as the junior Justice on the Court with a story about frozen yogurt. When she first arrived, she was asked to serve on the committee overseeing the Court’s cafeteria. Her first order of business was to secure a frozen yogurt machine for the cafeteria. She soon became known as the “frozen yogurt Justice.”
All jokes aside, Justice Kagan could not have spoken more highly about her colleagues on the Court. She noted that you can never take anything personally because you have to have good relationship with your colleagues and work with them on the next case. She described her colleagues as “committed and working in good faith.” And as much as “you’d like to win out of competition,” every justice is “trying to get it right as much as you are.” She reminisced about her relationship with late Justice Scalia by saying “he truly was my buddy.”
Perhaps the best part of her interview, was when the moderator asked Justice Kagan what she would would like her legacy to be. “Oh, the legacy will take care of itself,” she answered. “I’ll leave that to other people.” All she wants to do is “give it my all, work as hard as I can on every case to get it right, and have a high standard for my work.” She insisted that the key to great career is to find something that makes you “eager to go to work because it’s challenging.” Find something that “strikes you as meaningful, exciting, and fun.”