U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan joined Fortune’s Pattie Sellers on stage at the Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, DC.
What follows is an unedited transcript:
LEIGH GALLAGHER: Thank you, Nina, and congratulations to all of the mentees. We look forward to welcoming you back on the Summit stage again one day in the future.
We had hoped to hold tonight’s event at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. But the government shutdown has altered our plans a little bit. And I have to say that I concur with the sentiment expressed on this stage last night and today that if the U.S. Congress were all female, none of the turmoil would have happened over the past couple weeks, and we would all, in fact, be sitting at the Smithsonian right now. (Laughter.) So let’s just get that out of the way. (Applause.)
I’m very excited to introduce tonight’s featured interview with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
Justice Kagan is the fourth woman in history to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, she was the editor of Harvard Law Review, and she was the first female dean of Harvard University Law School. In 2009, she became the first female solicitor general for the United States and she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 2010.
It is my great pleasure to welcome Pattie Sellers and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan. (Cheers, applause, music. )
PATTIE SELLERS: Thank you, Leigh.
ELENA KAGAN: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s really great to be here.
PATTIE SELLERS: And you know what? While the government has been shut down —
ELENA KAGAN: We’ve been doing our work. (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: How does that work that you are at work when the government is shut down?
ELENA KAGAN: Well, we had a little bit of extra money in the pot and we just thought, “We’re going to keep doing what we do.” You know? (Applause.) We work pretty well.
PATTIE SELLERS: So we were actually talking about this backstage, and I said, “Does the Supreme Court have like a CFO who has managed the piggy bank well?”
ELENA KAGAN: I said we have a great, great administrative staff led by the Chief Justice, who is a fantastic manager of a really complicated but really excellent organization.
PATTIE SELLERS: And you have had enough money in reserve to keep operating.
ELENA KAGAN: Yes.
PATTIE SELLERS: And tomorrow, actually —
ELENA KAGAN: I think we were going to run out tomorrow or maybe the next day. And we were going to have to start doing a little bit of furloughing.
PATTIE SELLERS: Yeah, that’s amazing. So thank you for being here tonight. And Justice Kagan asked me to call her Elena, so I’m going to call you Elena on stage, and thank you for that.
You know, in doing my research for this interview, I was very kind of struck. You were born in April 1960, I was born in April 1960.
ELENA KAGAN: You’re giving away my age.
PATTIE SELLERS: I am. I am. Well, it’s kind of public. It’s kind of known. Everybody can Google you. (Laughter.)
ELENA KAGAN: I guess most things are.
PATTIE SELLERS: And you grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Cheers.)
ELENA KAGAN: Right.
PATTIE SELLERS: Yes. 75th and West End.
ELENA KAGAN: 75th and West End.
PATTIE SELLERS: Yeah, fantastic, that’s my neighborhood.
ELENA KAGAN: It’s a very different neighborhood then. You know, it was a little bit more humble.
PATTIE SELLERS: It was.
ELENA KAGAN: Yeah.
PATTIE SELLERS: It was, absolutely.
ELENA KAGAN: Which is — you know, it’s not all that humble now.
PATTIE SELLERS: I moved there in ’84, you left there in —
ELENA KAGAN: I left there in ’77 when I went to college. Everybody thinks of me as a New Yorker, but in fact, I never lived there as an adult. So I grew up there and then left. But it was a great place to grow up, I loved growing up in New York.
PATTIE SELLERS: So what did your parents do?
ELENA KAGAN: My father was a lawyer. He was as much as sort of small-town lawyer as it’s possible to be in New York City. Didn’t work for a big law firm. Sort of worked solo and represented, you know, people doing — wrote people’s wills and he solved their tax problems and he represented a few small businesses.
And then he started doing some real estate law for mostly tenants in New York City as New York City became — in the 1970s, when all the buildings became co-ops, he did a lot of that work. But he did a little bit of everything. And then my mother was an elementary school teacher.
PATTIE SELLERS: And did you acquire a love of the law from your father?
ELENA KAGAN: You know, the truth is that I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer. And it was sort of — it didn’t seem all that interesting to me. You know? (Laughter.) I mean now I look back and I think about what he did and I really appreciate it and I see how many people he helped and why he found the job as satisfying as he did, which he did. But at the time, I thought it looked dreadfully dull. (Laughter.)
So my colleague, Justice Sodomayor, and I have talked about this because she’s told this story about how when she was growing up, the first inkling that she had that she might want to be a lawyer came from she would watch Perry Mason on TV. (Laughter.) And for those of you too young to know, you know, Perry Mason was this great trial lawyer and he pulled rabbits out of hats and there were all these great, climactic moments when he solved the case and made it clear who was the liar and who was the truth-teller.
And she watched this on TV and she thought, “I want to do that.” And I said to her, I said, “Boy, I knew that that was not what lawyering was all about.” (Laughter.) Most lawyers in the world, they are not having Perry Mason moments, right?
PATTIE SELLERS: So how did you get into this?
ELENA KAGAN: You know, so I went to law school for every — I became a dean of a law school.
PATTIE SELLERS: You went to Princeton first.
ELENA KAGAN: So, yes. But every dean of a law school will tell you, don’t go to law school if you’re only going because you don’t know what else to do and you want to keep your options open. (Laughter.)
But I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do and I wanted to keep my options open. (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: But there’s this story about how you posed for your high school yearbook in a judge’s robe.
ELENA KAGAN: Yeah. Too much is made of that story, you know? (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: Was that a joke, like, on your father?
ELENA KAGAN: Yeah, you know, we were — it was a picture where we all posed in different costumes.
PATTIE SELLERS: Really?
ELENA KAGAN: And it didn’t really have anything to do with anything.
PATTIE SELLERS: Oh, that’s interesting, because it’s been —
ELENA KAGAN: It’s sort of the foundation myth, right?
PATTIE SELLERS: It is a myth. It’s like she’s wanted to be on the Supreme Court ever since she was in high school.
ELENA KAGAN: Yeah, well, you know, some things people say about you are not true. (Laughter.) I know it will shock you to learn that, but sometimes the press — you know?
PATTIE SELLERS: Yeah, we’re shocked as journalists. You went to an all-girls school. Which —
ELENA KAGAN: In New York City.
PATTIE SELLERS: Yeah, for you was a good experience?
ELENA KAGAN: Yeah, I loved my high school. It was a funny kind of high school. It was a public school, but you had to take a test to get in, it was one of these sort of special public schools. And it was all girls on top of that.
And it was a place called Hunter High School. It’s now co-ed. But then, it was this great academic place. It was really diverse. There were people from all over New York City, all races, all religions, all different income groups, but all smart girls. And it was cool to be a smart girl. (Applause.)
PATTIE SELLERS: That’s great.
ELENA KAGAN: So I look back and I think, you know, that school had a lot to do with who I am and how I grew up and what became important to me.
PATTIE SELLERS: So we have these fantastic high school students in the audience. An we’ve talked with them about what some of these women wanted to be when they were 16 years old. What did you want to be when you were 16?
ELENA KAGAN: I just told you. I didn’t have a clue.
PATTIE SELLERS: You really didn’t have a clue? Okay. (Laughter.)
So you decided to go to law school. And you, at some point, decided that you wanted to dedicate your life to the law.
ELENA KAGAN: That sounds very serious. (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: Well, tell us. At what point did you imagine that you could actually someday be on the Supreme Court?
ELENA KAGAN: No, I don’t think I ever really did. I mean, because it’s such a fluky, lightning-strike kind of thing. So I don’t think anybody can really say, “I’m thinking I want to be on the Supreme Court.” You know? Because if you do, you’re destined for a lot of heartache, you know? (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: I would say so, yeah.
ELENA KAGAN: But I did, when I was — I mean, I did have this wonderful experience when I was a young lawyer. I got to clerk on the Supreme Court. And then —
PATTIE SELLERS: Thurgood Marshall.
ELENA KAGAN: Thurgood Marshall. And that was an amazing, amazing year for me. It’s a very heady experience clerking on the Supreme Court. You’ve just graduated from law school, you’re in your 20s, and there you are in this institution that’s making all the important law and deciding all the important cases.
And so for anybody, for any clerk, I think it’s a real learning experience and a wonderful year in their lives. But extra special, I was clerking for Thurgood Marshall near the end of his life, not quite. And this icon of American law, and he was at a point in his life where I think he was looking back a little bit and taking stock.
And so one of the things about clerking with him is we would go into his office every day and we would first talk about the cases and do our work. And then he would start telling stories. And he was the greatest storyteller that I have ever encountered, and he had a life full of stories. Battling segregation, battling the Jim Crow system, encountering all kind of violence and danger in the early years of his career.
And it made you understand what lawyers could do, what law could do. Nobody, I don’t think any of us walked out thinking, “I’m going to be Thurgood Marshall.” You know? Because nobody could be Thurgood Marshall. But it made you think about the value that living a life in the law could have and think about how it is that you could try to have a career in the law where you were doing something meaningful and helping to advance justice.
PATTIE SELLERS: So he kind of hooked you?
ELENA KAGAN: He kind of hooked me.
PATTIE SELLERS: From 2003 to 2009, Elena was the first woman dean of Harvard Law School. And you entered Harvard Law School at a time when it was really dysfunctional, didn’t you?
ELENA KAGAN: You know, it might be that that’s a bit exaggerated. You know, because Harvard Law School is a great institution and it’s always been. So at the time that I came in, there were incredible strengths of the school. But there were also some problems in the way people dealt with each other, in the way they treated students. So, you know, I definitely had things to do there.
PATTIE SELLERS: Well, you got a lot of praise for your management skills there. And, you know, I think most of the Supreme Court justices, I may be wrong about this, but I think most of them don’t have the management experience that Elena does. And I actually did a piece which I dug up in 2010 right after you moved onto the Supreme Court. And, interestingly, we were talking earlier today about our late friend Joy Covey, the former CFO of Amazon who died tragically in September. I talked to Joy back then. You knew Joy at Harvard Law School.
ELENA KAGAN: She was an incredible woman. One of the things when you become a dean, everybody tells you, “Well, but you have to fundraise.” And then it turns out that fundraising is the best part of the job or almost because you meet such incredible people. And I met Joy because she was a very generous donor to Harvard and so interesting and intense.
PATTIE SELLERS: So interesting.
ELENA KAGAN: Just an amazing woman.
PATTIE SELLERS: She dropped out of high school, you know and went on to great things. Anyway, Joy recalled — I remember talking to Joy on the phone about you, and she recalled how Kagan, first woman to head the law school, lifted student morale there. She did her community building via small acts of kindness. Flooding a lawn on campus to create an ice rink, putting out free coffee and bagels in the morning, and redesigning spaces in Harkness Commons, the student center. This is what Joy said about you. These were things that didn’t break the bank, but said to students, “We care about you and your lives.”
ELENA KAGAN: I used to tell people that whatever I did as dean, I could hire tens of faculty, I could revamp the curriculum, I could build buildings, and that I would still be known as the “free coffee” dean. (Laughter.) Because if there was one thing that every student who went through Harvard Law School remembered is that we put out free coffee. You know, students drink a lot of coffee.
So this is one of the parts of my life that you didn’t mention was I worked in the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. I worked for four years in the Clinton White House. And do you remember how everybody said about President Clinton? Well, there were all these small-bore initiatives?
But I was a fan of small-bore initiatives. And I took that lesson from Washington and I said, “We’re going to have some small-bore initiatives.” Things that they don’t break the bank, but they communicate a set of values and they make people feel as though they’re living in an institution that cares about them and cares about their concerns. So that’s what I tried to do on those things. We tried to do a few bigger things, too, but free coffee went a long way. (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: That’s great. That’s great. Is there any opportunity to affect culture on the Supreme Court, in the Supreme Court?
ELENA KAGAN: That’s a jump of a question, okay. (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: I think there’s a transition there. (Laughter.)
ELENA KAGAN: Well, the first thing is we have actually a great culture on the Supreme Court. So it was actually not by into an institution and going, “Gosh, this culture has to change.” I mean, quite the opposite. The culture is a really terrific one. And, honestly, going back to how you started, you see some institutions in Washington that don’t work all that well, and the Supreme Court works very well. We’re nine people, we disagree on a lot, sometimes we express our disagreement in fairly powerful and sharp terms, but we all like each other an enormous amount. We all respect each other an enormous amount.
And I think that most of us most of the time, or really all of us most of the time, know how to disagree without being disagreeable. And so I think we believe in the good faith of each other and that doesn’t mean that we’re going to be nine-zero in everything we do. But it means we function really very well as an institution, which I’m proud of, and which is a testament to all my colleagues.
I mean, I’m the newbie. I walked into this institution and I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” And it’s especially a testament to the chief justice, who sets the tone.
PATTIE SELLERS: There has been over the years a debate about whether to allow cameras into the court and let people see how the Supreme Court works. And it is an institution that seems to work.
ELENA KAGAN: Yes.
PATTIE SELLERS: So what’s your view of that?
ELENA KAGAN: Well, on the plus side, I think that that would be the plus side is we work well. I think when people come to the court and they watch us, I think that’s a pretty good show.
And it’s not just a show, it’s obviously a bunch of people doing serious business. I think what they would see is nine people who are very prepared, and who really want to get the answer right. Again, often we’re going to disagree about what that means, but if you watch us, I think you’re going to see nine people who are trying really hard to figure out the cases and to figure out the right answer in the cases.
And, you know, I think it would be — the up side is it would be terrific for people to see that and watch that, an institution of their government that’s really working.
You know, the down side is you worry that, well, it’s working now, maybe cameras would change the dynamic. And I think that there is some reason to worry about that. I’m not sure that cameras have had such a great effect on the way Congress does its business. (Laughter.) And, you know, you like to think that you would be impervious to them and nothing in your behavior would change.
But I think it’s a reason for some caution and for a little bit of step-by-step process in terms of opening ourselves up more to the public.
PATTIE SELLERS: When was the first time that you went to the Supreme Court either as a lawyer or as a spectator?
ELENA KAGAN: You know, I’m not sure if I went before I started clerking there. So clerking there.
PATTIE SELLERS: And what year was that?
ELENA KAGAN: That was 1987.
PATTIE SELLERS: Okay, so 25 years ago.
ELENA KAGAN: Almost, right.
PATTIE SELLERS: How has the court changed in those 25 years?
ELENA KAGAN: Well, in some ways, it’s changed not much at all. I mean, it’s an institution that I think because it works has been careful about the way it changes things. And it’s an institution that’s very attached to its traditions and is conservative in how it operates and the way it — there has to be a really good reason to change a way of doing business at the court. And I think that’s because people realize that we’re doing pretty well and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
PATTIE SELLERS: So to the point that the court hasn’t changed very much, you don’t use e-mail there, do you?
ELENA KAGAN: We don’t to each other. You know, I obviously do to my clerks, but the justices themselves do not communicate by email.
PATTIE SELLERS: So how do you communicate?
ELENA KAGAN: Well, we either talk to each other, which is not a bad thing. (Applause.)
PATTIE SELLERS: Not a bad thing.
ELENA KAGAN: Yeah. Or we write memos to each other. And, you know, you have to remember that the court is an institution where we’re not horse trading, we’re not bargaining, we’re reasoning and we’re trying to persuade people. And, often, the best way to do that is by putting things down on paper in a kind of careful and deliberate way and saying, “This is what I think.” And giving people an opportunity to read a memo and to think about it and to reflect on it.
So we do a lot of our communicating by these — it’s sort of 19th century, this very heavy ivory paper, it looks like it came out of the 1800s or something. But it seems to work pretty well. And, you know, when you think about it, how many e-mails have you sent that you wished you could take back, right? (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: Seriously.
ELENA KAGAN: So we’re careful and deliberative.
PATTIE SELLERS: The theme of the summit this year is Breakthroughs in Leadership. Since you moved into this position three years ago, is there a moment on the court that you personally or you as the court, that you feel most represents that idea of a breakthrough in leadership. Maybe a breakthrough in leadership for America.
ELENA KAGAN: Oh, gosh, you know, no. (Laughter.) Because I really just try to do the work day by day by day. And I know that there are some cases that are incredibly important and others that nobody’s heard about. But for me, I try to give all of them the best, most careful consideration I can. So I would not pick out a particular case or anything like that.
I just sort of try to do the job one case at a time and to try as best I can to get it right each time out.
PATTIE SELLERS: One question, this is my last question: One question that we discussed with these high school students is the idea that —
ELENA KAGAN: They were great, by the way.
PATTIE SELLERS: Yeah.
ELENA KAGAN: I mean, we were watching you guys, where are you? (Applause.)
PATTIE SELLERS: Inspiring. Inspiring.
ELENA KAGAN: We were watching you offstage.
PATTIE SELLERS: You’ll meet some of them tonight.
ELENA KAGAN: Congratulations, lots of luck. You were terrific.
PATTIE SELLERS: You’ll meet some of them at dinner, all of them at dinner.
We were talking about how you don’t have to be good at everything — and this is a point that Warren Buffett — who is in the audience — makes. That you don’t have to know everything and be good at everything. So what are you not great at and what are you really good at? (Laughter.)
ELENA KAGAN: Well, you certainly don’t have to know everything. I mean, I learn new things every day. But what am I not great at? I think, you know, I used to think this when I was dean. The fun part about being dean was that you did lots and lots of different things. It’s actually not true of my job now, but as dean, that you did lots and lots of different things. And the key to being a good dean was that you could them all adequately.
And that’s actually a kind of special talent in and of itself, right? (Laughter.) A certain kind of breadth in your skill set. Even though you weren’t the best at anything, actually. But you weren’t the worst at anything either, you know?
So I used to think that, actually, that I had the capacity to do a lot of different things requiring a lot of different skills at least okay, you know?
But of course, you know, some things better than others. And I don’t know, you know, I really — I think people grow up. There was a lot I learned about how to deal with people during those years, which I really did not know at the beginning. And sometimes I had to learn through pretty serious errors.
So I think it’s funny because people now say, oh, “Elena Kagan, she has good people skills.” But that was definitely not true in large parts of my life, you know? (Laughter.) I had to develop those skills.
PATTIE SELLERS: And if you left these high school girls and these leaders from around the world with any piece of advice about just kind of developing your EQ and developing your people skills, what advice would you give?
ELENA KAGAN: I think to just sort of constantly work on yourself and to realize that you’re going to make mistakes and to try to not make them twice. So to learn from your errors and know that you’re not going to be perfect, but you can get better.
PATTIE SELLERS: And to admit your mistakes and say, “I learned from that, next.”
ELENA KAGAN: But not necessarily in this particular forum, right? (Laughter.)
PATTIE SELLERS: No, we like to admit mistakes here. Justice Elena Kagan, thank you so much for being with us.