Elena Kagan and the Miracle at Harvard

Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 61, No. 67, 2011

UNM School of Law Research Paper No. 2010-01

9 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2010 Last revised: 24 Oct 2017

Date Written: July 26, 2010


For most of the past fifty years, attending Harvard Law School was a miserable experience. Though students were happy to obtain a Harvard degree, they regretted the great personal cost of earning it. Harvard Law School was widely viewed as irreparable because the obstacles to changing the culture of the hide-bound, ivy-covered walls of an elite law school seemed too great. Student anomie at Harvard appeared to be structural, an inevitable by-product of admitting more than 550 law students each year and pitting them in a three-year competition for grades, elite law review membership, and, ultimately, jobs in fancy law firms. While a handful of students reaped vast rewards, others were scarred for life. A person looking for a challenge could scarcely have found a greater one in the Harvard deanship.

During Elena Kagan’s tenure as dean, a miracle occurred. Harvard Law School was transformed. Today, students embrace the institution. The professors engage with one another. And the school’s widely discussed dysfunctions are distant memories. Kagan accomplished this miracle by modeling two important and traditional American values: hard work and community. Kagan was known for walking the halls tirelessly to learn the views of her bright and independent colleagues and to seek consensus. She broke the gridlock between faculty political factions that had atrophied the academic life of the institution. Even more importantly, she transformed the student experience. This essay seeks to describe Kagan’s transformational leadership and provide insight as to the specific changes Kagan made to accomplish the miracle.

Keywords: Elena Kagan, Harvard Law School, Legal Education

JEL Classification: K10, M12, M54

Suggested Citation

Washburn, Kevin K., Elena Kagan and the Miracle at Harvard (July 26, 2010). Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 61, No. 67, 2011, UNM School of Law Research Paper No. 2010-01, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1631496

Kevin K. Washburn (Contact Author)

University of Iowa College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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