Sometimes The Good Old Days Really Were The Good Old Days

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.

What would happen to a kid like Boies today? Peg Tyre examines that very question in her new book The Trouble With Boys. You can also read her article, Struggling School-Age Boys, in Newsweek.

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.”

2 thoughts on “Sometimes The Good Old Days Really Were The Good Old Days

  1. I don’t have a son, but I have two daughters. All I can say is that the allegedly “feminized” school environment hasn’t done my daughters a bit of good. A lot of the girls who people think are doing so well in school are really just suffering in silence. In my daughter’s last year in the public school, if you asked the teachers or the principal how she was doing, they would have told you she was doing great — good test scores, good grades, doesn’t cause any trouble. I would have told you that she was falling apart — anxious, depressed, miserable, hopeless.

    I have a neighbor who says the public schools in this area are really good, and cites her daughter as an example. I happen to know her daughter had a whole series of nervous breakdowns between high school and college, and the stress of school was a huge factor. I said to my neighbor, “Don’t you think there was too much stress?” and she said, “Yeah, but she put a lot of the stress on herself.” What a copout.


  2. I don’t have a son, but I have two daughters. All I can say is that the allegedly “feminized” school environment hasn’t done my daughters a bit of good. A lot of the girls who people think are doing so well in school are really just suffering in silence. In my daughter’s last year in the public school, if you asked the teachers or the principal how she was doing, they would have told you she was doing great — good test scores, good grades, doesn’t cause any trouble. I would have told you that she was falling apart — anxious, depressed, miserable, hopeless.


    Thanks for putting it so succinctly and perfectly. I’ve seen parents, when confronted with issues involving their son and daughter, will default to the son because when boys are in distress, it’s impossible to ignore. They act out, they are disruptive, their grades tank. Girls suffer in silence and it’s a tragedy how schools just shrug it off.

    It is also amazing when you go in and tell them your child is in deep distress and drowning, and they say, we don’t see a problem. She’s getting B’s! In a gifted program. She’s fine! Especially if your child’s struggles are not cognitive. We are talking about the child who is a whiz in math, several years above grade level, but has ADD and can’t finish all her homework.Whose grades never show her true potential because she cannot finish timed tests. Who needs accommodations but doesn’t get them because she is not failing.

    Very specifically, I am referring to a twice exceptional child. A consultant we once contacted wrote on her website that GT/LD students are the most maligned in the system. If you have such a child, I am seeng you nodding vigorously. This is the silent group who really suffers the homework overload because their cognitive abilities put them in advanced programs.Where else can they go? Their weaknesses make the homework load unbearable. Homeschooling is the only solution, it seems.

    For those who can’t homeschool, the solution is a piece of cake. My daughter will tell you. I want harder not more, I want harder not more. Why is this concept so difficult for school officials to grasp? These kids get it the first time. Constant review and repetition are anathema.

    So why wouldn’t you help a 2e child? Because they have remarkable ability. They are the ones swimming across the creek carrying stones while the others walk across the bridge. It’s hard to tell how great their suffering is because they have the skill and endurance of an Olympic swimmer. No one ever bothers to notice they are swimming across instead of walking the bridge. Until 7th grade when the river freezes. Until 10th grade, when someone drops a shark in the water. They are like the duck, swimming beautifully on the surface. What you don’t see is the duck paddling furiously below the water, fighting not to drown.

    The most maligned child is the one who is cognitively advanced with a moderate exceptionality. The non gifted, the more severely learning disabled, would get some attention.I have friends with children where one masks the other, the giftedness covers up the disability, the disability covers up the giftedness and the child comes out merely looking average. An A/B student who aces the state tests. The girl suffers in silence and if the parents don’t sound the alarm, no one else will.

    It’s a no brainer how to help them. Accommodations 101 would do just fine, for starters. The most seminal intervention is LESS HOMEWORK. They don’t need 50 math problems, they figured it out by the fifth one. They don’t need to laboriously copy dictionary definitions, they already know the words, and besides which, they learn more word comprehension from READING. They need complex engaging material rather than slogging through a bunch of assignments, all due tomorrow. My daughter in elementary could sink her teeth into one complex assignment and achieve flow. Give her five routine ones she has to do very fast and she runs for the hills.

    The loss to society when we don’t nurture talent is incalculable.This is not an elitist position. It would be eaiser for these kids not to be gifted.



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