Coates, Kagan reap benefits of experience


The Law School administration announced the promotion this week of Profs. Elena Kagan and John Coates to tenured positions as Professors of Law.

Prof. Rakoff, Dean of the J.D. Program, said of Kagan and Coates: “It’s nice to be able to point to two such good teachers as well as such good scholars [for tenured positions].”

He added that “both John Coates and Elena Kagan have the real verve to be leaders of the faculty in the future.”

Kagan, born and raised a New Yorker, has an enviable academic pedigree: a B.A. from Princeton, a Masters from Oxford, and a J.D. from HLS. Following her 1986 graduation from HLS, Kagan clerked for two years — first in the D.C. Circuit and then for Justice Marshall.

Kagan managed to buck the call of the large law firm after clerking — at least temporarily. Instead, she went to work for the ill-fated Dukakis presidential campaign and “liv[ed] in Larry Tribe’s basement for about four months because I didn’t have a place to stay.

“When [Dukakis] lost I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, what am I going to do?’ And it was then that I ended up going to a D.C. law firm.”

After two years litigating Kagan entered the teaching job market and ultimately landed a professorial position at the University of Chicago.

It was after she gained tenure in Chicago that Kagan got the call from the Clinton Administration and began an almost four-year stretch working in D.C. She first served as associate counsel to the president for two years, a job she said “really heated up” throughout Clinton’s presidency as scandals were exposed. After the 1996 election Kagan expected to return to Chicago to teach — she wryly added, “I mean, the moving van was on its way” — when Pres. Clinton tapped her for the position of deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council. She served in that position for two and a half years before returning to HLS in 1999 as a visiting professor.

Kagan has taught Civil Procedure, seminars and — her professed favorite — administrative law since that time. She said of her time at HLS: “I’ve had a wonderful time from day one.”

Students seem to have appreciated her enthusiasm, whether in her seminar or larger courses — Kagan consistently enjoys lofty ratings in student evaluations. Rita Lin, a 2L assigned to Kagan’s Civil Procedure class last year, said that Kagan is “definitely the best professor I’ve had here … and I think a lot of people in my section would agree. I think almost everyone gave her a [top marks] on the student evaluations.”

Students also seem to like her “sharp” Socratic method. Guy Goldberg, a 3L who admits to being “stung a couple of times” by Kagan’s Socratic style, nonetheless thought her administrative law class was “excellent. Just how an HLS class should be, which is very rare.”

Goldberg did decry a noted “lack of Monica stories,” however, adding that Kagan was disappointingly “very discreet.”

Prof. Coates’ arrival at HLS in 1997 is also the stuff of rumor around HLS: The story goes that he became the youngest partner ever at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz and then quit the next day. But that tale is only vaguely true. In fact, Coates spent seven years at the New York firm and left over a year after being named partner.

Though Coates was not available for comment, he apparently left Wachtell on good terms. He told the Law Bulletin: “I’ve left the best law firm in the country for the best law school in the country.” His students also confirm that he refers to Wachtell warmly.

Coates’ decision to pursue teaching wasn’t exactly precipitous. He taught courses in mergers and acquisitions at his alma mater, NYU, for five years and had been named adjunct assistant professor of law there. He also taught that class at Boston University for two years before joining Harvard as an assistant professor four years ago.

Students who have taken courses with Coates generally claim to have benefited from his real world experience.

“He’s very knowledgeable, very structured, experienced — and he gave great stories and practical advice,” said Khalil Sharif.

2L Louis Tompros, who has had Coates for only a few weeks this year agreed: “He is very, very competent. He really knows what he’s talking about.”

And Josh Feltman, a 3L who has had Coates for multiple courses, added that Coates is particularly strong in empirics and adopts a useful practical approach to teaching.

Though they ascended the academic ranks in rather different manners, Kagan and Coates seem to share a real excitement for their newfound positions. Coates, joking in class on Wednesday, seemed happy with his new position: He told his Corporations class that although he planned to stick to the traditional analysis of the subject, now that he has the protection of tenure, he might be a Marxist by the year’s end.

Kagan, equally good-natured about her newfound position, glowed when asked about receiving tenure. She said: “This is the best job in the world and I wouldn’t trade it.”

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