Washington DC

Elena Kagan: Not all government is dysfunctional

October 16, 2013: 9:38 PM ET

The youngest Supreme Court Justice and former Dean of Harvard Law School talks about creating great culture and communicating without email.

By Colleen Leahey, reporter

131016213441-elena-kagan-mpw-620xaFORTUNE -- Capitol Hill's exhaustive gridlock so pervades conversations about the U.S. legal system that it's difficult to remember other governmental institutions with far fewer managerial problems. On Wednesday night at Fortune's Most Powerful Women conference in Washington, D.C., mild-mannered Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan reminded the audience of just that.

The youngest member of the Court, Kagan became a high court justice in 2010. Before catching President Obama's eye, she was Harvard Law School's first female dean. She became famous for small acts that lifted students' morale -- like flooding a campus lawn to create an ice rink or free coffee in the morning.

The thinking behind the spirit-boosting stemmed from her time working in the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Clinton had plenty of critics regarding his small-bore initiatives, but Kagan was a fan. Those tiny treats didn't break the bank, she told the crowd, and let the law students know that they're living in an institution that cared about them and their concerns. She then joked that no matter what she does in her career, she would "still be known as the 'Free Coffee Dean.'"

MORE: Complete coverage of the Most Powerful Women Summit

With a prominent new title that may expunge her label as the Free Coffee Dean, Kagan remains regarded as a great boss. She finds that thinking funny. "That was definitely not true in large parts of my life. I had to develop those skills." Running Harvard's law school taught her a great amount about dealing with a variety of personality types -- and she also learned from some serious errors. "I think people grow up," she added.

Upon joining the nine-person U.S. Supreme Court, Kagan applauded the institution's culture. "You see some institutions in Washington that don't work that well," she said, alluding to the legislative branch. "We're nine people, we disagree a lot. But we all like each other an enormous amount and respect each other an enormous amount." Though that sort of relationship doesn't equate to a 9-0 vote on every issue, Kagan said it oils the institution's operations, and she credits Chief Justice Roberts for setting the agreeable tone.

The Justices' healthy relationships perhaps stem from the fact that their in-boxes will never be cluttered with rash emails from one another. They communicate by memos on heavy ivory paper ("It's sort of 19th century," Kagan teased) or they simply talk to each other in person, "which is not a bad thing," she added. "How many emails have you sent that you wish you could take back?" she then asked the crowd of business executives. The slower method forces the Justices to communicate in a more deliberate and reasonable way.

Kagan also said the lack of cameras at the Supreme Court assist with its functionality. Though opening cases up to the media has its plus side -- "I think it's a pretty good show. [It's] nine people who are very prepared, who really want to get the answer right." -- there are the obvious downsides. "I'm not sure cameras have had such a great effect on the way Congress does its business," Kagan said.

Despite the Supreme Court's apparent organizational success, Kagan was quick to acknowledge her faults. "Learn from your errors and know that you're not going to be perfect, but you can get better," she advised the audience. It's healthy to discuss mistakes -- and with a laugh she added, but "not necessarily in this particular [Most Powerful Women] forum."

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