Justice Elena Kagan of the U.S. Supreme Court visited the University of Colorado Boulder campus for two days last week and on Tuesday gave the law school’s annual Stevens Lecture. Suzette Malveaux, director of the school’s Byron R. White Center for constitutional law studies, interviewed Kagan in a fireside chat about everything from the role of diversity in the judiciary to her colorful dissent in a 5-4 decision about political gerrymandering.
Students and faculty packed Macky Auditorium to hear from Kagan, and law students chosen in advance to ask her questions seemed in awe when they stepped up to the microphone. But Kagan also peppered the discussion with her signature dry wit, frequently prompting the audience to burst into laughter or applause. When Malveaux began listing Kagan’s professional credentials before her appointment to the Supreme Court — solicitor general, dean of Harvard Law School, clerk to former Justice Thurgood Marshall — Kagan responded with, “I couldn’t keep a job, really. Every four years I was off doing something else.”
Below is a selection of her discussion with Malveaux. The transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
On advice to law students deciding what they want in their careers:
Kagan: I guess what I would say to students about what to do with their years of law school and how to think about their legal careers is, you have this great opportunity to find out in law school what really moves you, what are the kinds of things that you really care about. And they’ll be different for all of you.
But if you come out of law school with a sense of, “This is the kind of thing that if I worked on, I would want to go to work every day. And I would feel as though I was doing the job for the purpose and meaning.” That is a great thing to come out of law school with, and not everybody does. You know, some people find it later on in their legal careers.
I mean, of course you’ve made your luck, and there are ways of putting yourself in a position to be offered certain opportunities. But for the most part, things come out of the blue, I think, and that’s the way life works. And I think too many law students and young lawyers put themselves in this plan [of] “First I have to do this, and then I have to do that, and that prepares me for the next thing.