Kagan's Keys to Fulfillment
The happiest lawyers are those who do work that helps others, said Justice Elena Kagan at Georgetown Law School yesterday. (If only they allowed cameras at SCOTUS, we'd get to see which Justices she lets nap on her shoulder.)
One of Kagan's clerkships was for Justice Thurgood Marshall; she calls him the finest American lawyer of the 20th century, in part for the degree to which he promoted justice in the world. From Marshall and Judge Abner Mikva, for whom she also clerked, she saw examples of "leading lives in the law that are not just about you." Dean William Treanor led a conversation with Kagan yesterday for GULC's inaugural Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class. Lawyers with the most fun legal careers, added Kagan, are open to serendipity. Of her own varied career (from Williams & Connolly lawyer to Harvard Law Dean to Solicitor General), she said almost nothing was planned, but she grabbed good things when they came up.
Much is made of oral arguments before the Supreme Court, but yesterday Kagan admitted that they're not all that important. Kagan said that most of the time, it's while reading the brief that the case is really thought through. SCOTUS oral arguments, in addition to being a way to interact with the lawyers, are a way for the justices to speak to each other about the case (which they don't discuss beforehand). Particularly since Kagan is the most junior justice—and thus speaks last when Justices cast preliminary votes following the argument—when she has a differing view from her colleagues on the Court, she'll try to use the argument and questions she asks to convey points to them.
Afterward, we moved from McDonough Hall to a reception. Gibson Dunn DC founding partner John Olson stopped by to say hello. As a Georgetown Law professor, he's at home on campus (this semester he's teaching nonprofit governance and federal securities regulation). He's also a fellow Harvard Law alum.
We snapped Dean Treanor with the Justice after the hour-long chat. Kagan didn't intend to be a lawyer, though her father was one; she had childhood aspirations of being a writer or a professional tennis player. She headed to Harvard Law to "keep her options open" after majoring in history, and found that she loved it from day one. Both the puzzle-solving, technical aspects held appeal (one of her favorite classes was Tax), as well as the ability to use law to make a difference.