Elena Kagan was “petrified” when a Law School professor called on her on her first day of class. She blew her first exams, which situated her in “the bottom third of the class.”
And then, in her second semester at Harvard Law School, things started to change.
“When I first came here in 1983, I was very excited and very nervous,” Kagan, J.D. ’86, told a room packed with more than 500 students in Wasserstein Hall, with another 300 seated in an overflow room. “I hadn’t a clue of why I was here really, and I hadn’t the faintest idea of where it would lead to. I went to Law School to keep my options open and because I couldn’t think of anything else. Notwithstanding that I went to Law School for all the wrong reasons, when I got to Law School, I loved it. I really loved it.”
With refreshing candor and good humor, the Supreme Court associate justice shared anecdotes about her early days as a 1L in a conversation with former HLS Dean Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard, during an orientation program Thursday morning at HLS. Despite her rocky start, Kagan would eventually graduate magna cum laude, taking a first major step toward a seat on the bench of the nation’s highest court.
Dean John F. Manning was pleased to have Kagan talk to the new class, as he knew from experience that it would help them feel more relaxed and confident about themselves as their first semester was about to begin. Kagan, who was named HLS’s first female dean in 2003, has taken part in the orientation program for the past few years.
“I’m delighted that Justice Kagan returned again to Harvard Law School to teach our students and reconnect with our community,” said Manning, who attended HLS at the same time as Kagan. “She is not only a brilliant lawyer and jurist, but also a generous and funny teacher, colleague, and friend.”
Kagan spoke at length about her life as a law student and her journey to the high court. She offered advice on how to have a fulfilling legal career, but she also reminded students of the responsibility and privilege that comes with being a lawyer.