I read a profile of David Boies, the lawyer who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore, and I couldn’t help but long for the days when children were allowed to be children and to develop at their own rates. Boies, who grew up in the 1940s, is one of the most famous trial attorneys in the United States, was dyslexic, didn’t learn to read until third grade, worked in construction after high school, and later decided to go to college for a 2-year certification program. He then decided to go to law school.
Here’s an excerpt from Boies’s profile, which is in Super Lawyers.
Boies spent his first 13 years in tiny Marengo, Ill. “On the way to Iowa on U.S. Highway 20,” he says. He was the oldest of five children whose parents were school teachers. Boies describes himself as “kind of normal,” but dyslexic. The condition was largely unknown in the 1940s, but nobody cared much that he didn’t learn to read until he was in third grade. “There was no academic pressure, and reading was not a particularly highly prized talent for little boys,” Boies says. “Boys who did well in school weren’t all that popular.” His parents were patient and supportive, he says, and “I was pretty good at thinking and talking, so I could get by.”
His first job was a paper route at age 10—he can still fold and throw a newspaper—and his first passion, once he learned to read well enough, was Erle Stanley Gardner’s series of Perry Mason books. “They were better than the TV series,” Boies recalls. “The Perry Mason in those books was a more realistic, grittier lawyer than Raymond Burr on TV.”
In 1954, his father uprooted the family and moved to Southern California. They settled in Compton, then moved to Fullerton, where Boies became more interested in parties and cars than academics. He stopped delivering newspapers after discovering he was a whiz at bridge, with a natural facility for counting cards and creating a playing strategy for each hand. Soon adults were paying him for “playing lessons” and to accompany them to tournaments.
When he graduated from high school, he had little interest in college. He worked construction, bought a 1950 Ford, married his high school sweetheart and started a family. But when he realized there were easier ways to make a living than construction, he decided to go to college for a two-year teacher certification course—California was growing rapidly and needed teachers desperately—that would allow him to become a history teacher like his dad.
At the University of Redlands in San Bernardino, he was surprised at how much he liked college, and how well he did. Redlands had a program that allowed students to start law school after three years—the first year of law school would count as their senior year of college—and Boies entered the program and enrolled at Northwestern’s law school with the intention of becoming a law school professor back in California. In Evanston, his marriage broke up and he had an affair with another student who happened to be the wife of one of his law professors. Boies transferred to Yale, studied economics for a year, then finished his last year of law school. “I saw a few areas where economics was already beginning to play a role in law, like antitrust,” he says. “But the economics the courts were using was pretty primitive, and in some cases just flat wrong. I thought there was a lot of potential application of economics in the law.”
In the autumn of 1966, Boies took a job at Cravath Swaine & Moore, partly because his classmates told him it was the best firm in the country, but mostly because he thought a couple of years’ experience at a big Manhattan firm would help him get a job teaching law in California. He remarried, to the Northwestern law student, went into litigation—”the Perry Mason thing,” he says—and started teaching part-time at NYU Law School.
Cravath was a good fit for him, he says, because it was more of a meritocracy than most big firms. “I was not your typical New York City big-firm associate,” he says. “I didn’t really dress the same. I didn’t have a lot of three-piece suits. I had a suit, but …” Rather than dress like a Wall Street lawyer, Boies dressed like the head of the Chamber of Commerce in Marengo, Ill. He still does. On a recent day, sitting in the conference room of his Midtown offices, Boies was asked if everything he was wearing, except his black Merrell sneakers, was from Lands’ End. He looked at his suit and his button-down shirt, nodded as he ticked off garments, smiled. “Yeah,” he said, delighted. The cheap watch, the haphazard haircut and the mail-order suits have all become part of his “brand,” he jokes.
His first two years at Cravath, Boies took advantage of the firm’s pro bono program and spent several weeks each summer in Mississippi representing civil rights workers and African Americans trying to register to vote. It was his first time in court. “It suited me,” he recalls. “I liked the idea that I was accomplishing something. I liked the idea of the conflict, the challenge, the use of verbal and intellectual skills to search for truth. I loved cross-examination—particularly of people trying to lie.”
When Stanford offered him a job on the law faculty, his mentor at Cravath, the renowned litigator Tom Barr, persuaded Boies to stay and help with the defense in a big case: the government’s antitrust action against IBM. Boies agreed to stay for two more years. Then two more. And two more after that. He made partner in 1972, at age 31, but the IBM case was not decided until 1981, after five years at trial. The result was a resounding victory for IBM and a national profile for Boies in what Time called “the case of the century.”