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.

Studying and practicing law in a country where no one is above the law gives attorneys a sense of mission and purpose, said Kagan. “You really get to do stuff that matters to people,” she said. “To live in a rule-of-law country is an incredible thing, and that has to be guarded very carefully, and you’re now part of that enterprise.”

Drawing lessons from her own experience, Kagan advised students to be open to serendipity and be willing to take risks. During her six years at the helm of HLS, Kagan saw many students planning their careers, including summer internships, in advance. It is a good idea to have plans, Kagan said, but students should be willing to abandon them to pursue something fun and exciting, which could lead to new passions and commitments.

Becoming a judge, said Kagan, was “mostly accidental.” After graduating from Harvard, Kagan clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and then went to work at a law firm in Washington, D.C. In 1991, she became a professor at the University of Chicago Law School; she moved from there to a position as associate counsel to the president in the White House. She arrived at Harvard in 1999 as a law professor.

Kagan had expected to someday become president of a university, but her life path changed when she got a call in 2009 from President Barack Obama asking her to serve as U.S. Solicitor General. A year later Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court.

When Minow asked Kagan which title she prefers, Kagan quipped, “I like ‘Justice,’ myself.”

“You really get to do stuff that matters to people. To live in a rule-of-law country is an incredible thing, and that has to be guarded very carefully, and you’re now part of that enterprise.”

— Elena Kagan

As for her work as a Supreme Court Justice, Kagan said she enjoys reading cases, writing decisions, and thinking about the law, but she also relishes working with the other justices and following the rituals that are part of the institution. She said she misses both the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who taught her how to hunt, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018.

After listening to Kagan’s talk, first-year law students Nicole Franklin and Alison Roberts felt a mix of relief and gratitude.

“I love how she kind of helped me feel OK as I’m thinking about what it’s going to mean for me to be a lawyer,” said Franklin.

Roberts shared the sentiment.

“You come into a talk like this expecting to see someone who is such an intellectual titan and so far above your level,” said Roberts. “And yet I found it incredibly reassuring to hear how she struggled to get her footing here and she kind of followed what felt right at the time, not necessarily having a plan. For someone who is so accomplished, to be able to reassure students who are about to start is a testament to her as a teacher and as a person.”