WASHINGTON – For all the ink devoted to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan lately, it may be her own words that best explain her success at charting an undeviating course to the front steps of the high court.

She’s excelled by dint of hard work, smarts and what she describes as good “situation sense” — the ability to size up her surroundings and figure out what truly matters, as she put it during confirmation hearings for her last job, as President Obama’s solicitor general, the government’s top lawyer before the Supreme Court.

It’s what allowed Kagan to channel the thinking of legal giant Thurgood Marshall when she was a “27-year-old pipsqueak” clerk to the justice.

It’s what allowed Kagan to navigate the land mines of government policy on abortion, tobacco and other contentious issues as an adviser to President Clinton.

It’s what allowed Kagan to thrive as the first female dean of Harvard Law School and even foster detente within its famously fractious faculty.

Now, 50-year-old Elena Kagan stands before the Senate, confident she will be judged ready to join the justices whom she’s calls “fabulously smart, fabulously interesting people.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Monday on Kagan’s nomination. While Republicans have done plenty of grumbling about her liberal political views, all sides anticipate she will be confirmed before the Senate’s August recess as the court’s youngest justice.

Asked what she was most proud of, Kagan last year told National Public Radio: “Working really, really hard, and achieving as much as I could.”

Kagan’s work has been her life. Her made-to-order resume starts with Princeton, Oxford and Harvard. A clerkship under Marshall at the Supreme Court gives way to stints in private practice, teaching, the Clinton White House.

Kagan lived her life carefully and cleanly. Cleanly enough that in 1999 Clinton nominated her for a seat on the federal appeals court bench in Washington.

Then came a rare hiccup, not of Kagan’s own making: The Republican-controlled Senate never acted on her nomination. “Her” seat on the bench instead eventually went to future Chief Justice John Roberts.

The setback didn’t slow Kagan down. At Harvard, she quickly moved from visiting professor to full law professor to dean.

“Elena took the post at a time when I think most people thought that Harvard Law School was an unmanageable institution and did a remarkable job,” says Paul Clement, a former solicitor general for President George W. Bush and Kagan endorser. “It speaks to the quality of her ability to deal with people from across ideological divides and to manage a very difficult institution.”

Kagan won praise for recruiting prominent conservatives to join Harvard’s faculty.

But her tenure there also has given her critics a rallying point. As dean, Kagan defended the school’s restrictions on military recruitment on campus because of the Pentagon’s prohibition on openly gay service members. She called the policy “a moral injustice of the first order.” Kagan also stressed that her disagreement with the military didn’t extend beyond that single issue.

Kagan never did become a judge, which critics see as a problematic gap in her experience. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sees in Kagan a “dangerous nominee” — young, with a thin legal record, a liberal bent and an affinity for activist judges.

But Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court’s most outspoken conservative, framed Kagan’s lack of judicial experience as an asset.

And Kagan got what might be the next-best thing: Obama chose her to be the first female solicitor general.

Over the past year, she’s argued the government’s side in six cases before the Supreme Court, a daunting setting for a novice litigator. Kagan held her own and displayed a remarkably informal style in her back-and-forth with the justices, unafraid to challenge their assumptions.

For all her hard work and focus, Kagan is no machine. She is funny and thoughtful. And, on occasion, snarky and profane, too.

In the solicitor general’s office, Kagan made it a point to send a personal note and a bottle of champagne each time an assistant argued his or her first case before the Supreme Court.

Bruce Reed, Kagan’s boss during her years on Clinton’s domestic policy council, which dealt with a host of thorny issues, says Kagan was always “quick to laugh about herself and about the situations we found ourselves in.”

Kagan also has a temper, and isn’t afraid to show it.

Harvard law professor Charles Fried, a Republican who supports Kagan’s nomination, says she once blew up at him during a disagreement concerning what to do about pages missing from a constitutional law exam.

“She screamed and shouted at me and slammed the door and stormed out,” Fried recalled. “Two minutes later, she came back and said, ‘I’m sorry I shouted.’ I said, ‘Elena, don’t apologize, you were right.’“

Kagan, who is single, hasn’t made much of a splash in Washington’s social scene. Her parents — a school teacher and activist lawyer in Manhattan — both are deceased.