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Justice Kagan Tells Students to Listen, Learn and Work Together

MARCH 18, 2014 – WHEN NOW-SUPREME COURT Justice Elena Kagan became the U.S. solicitor general in 2009, the popular Harvard Law dean had never actually argued before any appellate court, let alone the High Court. So how did she succeed in the job?

“I talked to pretty much every living solicitor general … about how the office worked – a lot of different things that have nothing to do with actually arguing the cases, but that go into being a successful solicitor general,” Kagan told Dean William M. Treanor at the inaugural Dean’s Lecture to the Graduating Class on March 17 at Georgetown Law.

The SGs, Kagan said, also talked to her about arguing – a good thing, since her first attempt before the Court would be the Citizens’ United campaign finance case.

“Kind of a big argument,” she said, to appreciative laughter.

The importance of listening, learning, working together and staying open to serendipitous good fortune were just a few of the tips that the Court’s 112th justice had for the Class of 2014 on a snowy St. Patrick’s Day visit. In the hourlong conversation, Kagan shared some surprising insights about her own aspirations.

She did not want to be a lawyer as a child, though her father was one. And, while she majored in history, she soon realized that the life of a historian was not for her: “I thought, I’ll go to law school, I’ll keep my options open, something will turn up.”

As it turned out, she “loved every moment” of law school, even tax.

“I liked thinking through really complicated problems, but I also liked the fact that it wasn’t purely a puzzle and purely abstract, that there were ways that people could use the law to actually make a difference…” Kagan said. “I think I hoped to have a career where I could experience a lot of different things.”

She said she was extremely lucky to have mentors like Judge Abner J. Mikvah and Justice Thurgood Marshall. (Kagan clerked for both.)

“If you are not inspired… you are a little bit dead to the world,” she said of Marshall. “It was a lesson in what law can accomplish."

In true Supreme Court fashion, Kagan ended the conversation by questioning Treanor. As it turns out, the deans share similar career philosophies – teamwork is critical, they said, and while goals are important, life doesn’t always happen as planned.

“The lawyers who are happy are the lawyers who find some way to accomplish something for people outside themselves,” Kagan advised the graduates, “[and] the kind of work that you do, because it makes a difference in the world, is going to fill you with a sense of ‘mission accomplished’ during that day.”