The Go-To Guy
David Boies takes on cases considered pure losers—and wins. Still, he couldn’t save Al Gore from the career-stopping, history-making decision of the U.S. Supreme Court four years ago. What’s one of the country’s top legal eagles up to now?
By Deborah A. Wilburn
David Boies is so relaxed and affable, it is hard to imagine him turning into a barracuda in the courtroom. But this is the guy who, as a young partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of New York’s premier law firms, successfully defended IBM in a major antitrust suit and famously put to rest General William Westmoreland’s defamation suit against CBS—two early successes that instantly put him on the short list for the next important case to come down the pike. Still the go-to guy, his firm headquartered in Armonk was selected to represent John Kerry in the recent presidential election—if litigation proved necessary. Boies is now representing Court TV, seeking to have the New York State statute barring cameras in the courtroom declared unconstitutional.
What’s remarkable about the 63-year-old mild-mannered litigator, who became something of a cultural hero in the Gore 2000 election imbroglio, is that he doesn’t ever transform into something he’s not. There is no bravado, outburst, or bluster necessary to make a point, inside or outside the courtroom. Simply, he is a brilliant strategist with more brainpower than seems possible, winning cases most lawyers would shirk. Which is rather remarkable considering that Boies is dyslexic and didn’t even graduate from college. (He did however attend the country’s No. 1 law school.)
Yet, in his new book, Courting Justice, he makes his courtroom successes seem so easy. In the first few pages, the lanky soft-spoken father of six gives us the necessary personal background, just to confirm for us that, yes, he does have two parents and he is human. Then he regales us with stories of some of the challenging cases he has worked on over a four-year period since leaving Cravath in 1997 and starting his successful firm, Boies, Schiller & Flexner. The firm, today staffed with 180 lawyers, has nine offices, mostly on the East Coast, but its main office is on Main Street in Armonk, the town where he has lived with his third wife, Mary, and family since the early eighties. What skills does he think are necessary to prevail in the courtroom?
“They’re not that different from a reporter’s,” he answers. “There are similarities: you try to find the facts, get people to talk to you, figure out if they’re being accurate, and simplify complicated issues. The differences are that while a reporter tries to write objectively, a lawyer is an advocate, and much of what a lawyer presents is oral.” There’s one other difference: earnings. Boies’s hourly rate is $750.
We meet on a chilly November day in his lovely, Georgian-style brick home, situated on a bit of a rise so that the wooded hills seem to undulate beyond the living room windows. One can only imagine the spectacular views that unfold as the seasons change. The seven-bedroom, seven-bath, 8,000-square-foot home is comfortably furnished with inviting sofas; family photos dominate the light-filled living room and wood-paneled library. A gorgeous mural in the dining room reflects the surrounding grounds, permanently fixed in summer, the verdant trees heavy with leaves. There are two Steinway grand pianos that Mary plays (Mary is an accomplished litigator in her own right; her firm, Boies & McInnis, is also located in Armonk). The house, like Boies himself, is not ostentatious but affords him everything he needs on 9.5 acres, including a pool and tennis court. Boies calls himself an enthusiastic, though not particularly good, tennis player. And far from a serious laps swimmer, the pool is reserved for play with his children and grandchildren.
Famous for his Lands’ End suits and black suede sneakers, Boies does however have one indulgence: his wine cellar, which holds around 6,000 bottles, mostly reds. Boies likes a good steak; he and Mary make frequent trips to Luna, in Mount Kisco, to indulge. He also enjoys Crabtree’s Kittle House, which, he notes, has a nice wine list. When did he become a connoisseur? “I started drinking interesting wine when a partner I worked for at Cravath took me to La CrÃ©maillÃ¨re in Banksville,” he says.
On this day, we’re talking about the government’s successful antitrust case against Microsoft, in which Boies represented the Justice Department. His deposition of Bill Gates is legendary (Gates was reduced to defensive stonewalling, which did nothing to help his case). Given that he works without notes, I comment that I’ve read he has a photographic memory and wait for confirmation. None comes.
“That’s not accurate,” he says. “What I do is try to focus on those points that I think will be important to remember. As a result, when I am able to pull out a fact that’s relevant, people think I have remembered all the facts. What I’ve done is remembered those that I thought in advance were going to be important.”
I later talk to Robert Silver, a former Cravath attorney who joined Boies when he started his new firm, about his partner’s skills. “It is easier for him because he has a very unusual combination of qualities—an extraordinary intelligence and an ability to focus very intensely but remain detached,” he tells me. “The combination does two things: it allows him to simplify and communicate the essence of very complicated things, and it allows him to work much more quickly. He is able to go right to the heart of things more quickly than you would imagine is possible.” All of which explains how Boies could take on as many overlapping, challenging cases as he has, from George Steinbrenner’s revenue-sharing battle with Major League baseball to Microsoft to a case in which he steadfastly, and ultimately successfully, represented an American mother in her years-long quest to see her children after they were abducted by their wealthy, Guatemalan father.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Boies is that he is so comfortable in his own skin. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he says. Indeed. Born in the northern Illinois farming community of Sycamore to two schoolteachers, Boies and his family, which included three siblings, moved to Southern California when he was 13. By his own account he was not a great student; years later he was diagnosed as dyslexic. He didn’t learn to read until the third grade, and, to this day, Boies says he reads more slowly than most. As a teen his two main interests were drag racing and playing cards to earn spending money. On graduation he married his high school sweetheart. By the time he was 21, he had a son, David III, and a daughter, Caryl, and returned to school at his wife’s prodding. He attended the University of Redlands and applied himself to his studies as never before. “I was more focused in my studies since I was married and had children to support,” he says. “I was also more mature.” Not only that, but “in college you’re graded on how well you can think and analyze,” he says. “In high school the emphasis is on input and trying to repeat back what you’re learned. That’s particularly hard on someone with dyslexia. In college what I was doing was more in line with my abilities and my dyslexia was less of a disadvantage.”
He writes in his book that he’d always had two career interests: teaching and practicing law. Convinced by his professors that he could always teach history after law school if he wanted (following the footsteps of his father), he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he’d received a scholarship. But while Boies found himself thoroughly engaged by his legal studies, his young wife, far removed from family and cooped up in an apartment all day with two small children, found Chicago cold and bleak. At the end of his first year, she moved back to the West Coast, taking the children with her.
To say that Boies lives in the moment and is a risk-taker would be an understatement. Once it was clear that his relationship with his first wife was over, he began to date Judith Daynard, described by Boies in his book as “the smartest and most attractive woman in our class.” Surely a match made in heaven, except for one minor glitch: she was married to Boies’s evidence professor. At the end of the school year the two were asked to leave. Judith, a native of New York City, wanted to return home. She chose Columbia, while Boies opted for Yale Law School—an opportunity he describes as one of the gifts she gave him, along with their twin sons, Christopher and Jonathan, who were born in 1968. The couple divorced a few years later. Says Boies: “Marriage requires a lot of focus and effort, and I wasn’t mature enough to put that into my first two marriages.”
In the late seventies, Boies met Mary McInnis Schuman, when he took a leave from Cravath to serve as chief counsel of the Senate Antitrust Committee. She was a lawyer on the White House staff. When he returned to Cravath—and New York—Mary followed. They bought their Armonk home in 1981 and married the next year. The couple has two children, Mary Regency, 21, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alexander, 19, a freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A devoted family man, all four of his grown children are lawyers, and three work with him in his firm. Seven grandchildren now fill out the flock. In spite of his demanding schedule, Boies made the time each summer to take one of his children on a month-long cross-country jeep trip. “There’s an awful lot of great things to see and places to go,” he says. This past summer he and Mary Regency toured Yosemite, Rushmore, and Yellowstone.
Given his track record, David Boies is used to winning. But he suffered one of his most significant losses in 2000, first when the United States Supreme Court peremptorily decided in a 5-4 decision to order election officials in Florida to stop the recount of ballots before they were completed, before the merits of the case had even been heard. Then, after hearing arguments, the same five justices decided that the manual recounts violated the Equal Protection Clause, even though three had previously written opinions using principles that were contrary to their current interpretation of Equal Protection.
Still, even in defeat, Boies remains unruffled. Mere hours after the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor, Boies met with one of his partners for an update on other cases on which he was working. “He spends no energy being worried, concerned, or unhappy with results he doesn’t like,” says Mary. “I’d love to have that emotional makeup. Most lawyers I know don’t. If David wins or loses, he’ll think about it and learn from it for the future, but he won’t take it to heart.”
What he does take to heart is the relationships that sustain him. In addition to his wife, children, and other close family members, Boies has a handful of close male friends he’s known for decades, who, by his own admission, form a tight circle around him. There’s a lot one could learn from this legal superstar, and clearly not all of it can be found in the courtroom.
Deborah Wilburn is a freelance journalist who lives in White Plains.