The Bridgestone-Firestone and Ford Motor Company debacle had only been in the headlines a few days when a familiar name emerged: David Boies. The attorney who had rescued Napster Inc. and buried Bill Gates has been approached to play a role in what promises to be the biggest auto consumer case since Ford had to explain its exploding Pintos.
The possibility of navigating the legal minefield that is sure to develop over who knew what-and when-about defects in the Firestone tires intrigued Mr. Boies. Without revealing how or by whom he’d been approached, he reviewed the benefits such a case would present to his three-year-old Westchester County–based firm.
“There are important legal issues, social issues and corporate-accountability issues, and obviously issues of life and death,” said Mr. Boies by phone from the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, where he had taken a break from writing a crucial brief in the Napster case and from his idyllic life in Armonk, N.Y. “It might interest us if we could marshal the resources to do it well. I think it would depend a lot on what role we ended up taking. I don’t think we would be interested in any case where we would not be playing a very significant role. That’s what we do best.”
Mr. Boies spoke quietly, succinctly, parsing the essential aspects of the case that could make it worth his while. The profession’s longest-running “It” boy, he operates in a rarefied world where he can pick and choose from among the biggest cases on the nation’s dockets.
He is representing the class-action plaintiffs suing Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as Calvin Klein Inc. in its trademark suit against Warnaco Group Inc.-and, of course, Napster, which is fighting for its right to exist against a suit by the Recording Industry Association of America. His everyday clients include Garry Shandling, George Steinbrenner, Arthur Andersen and the Philip Morris Companies.
But his association with boldface names and blue-chip institutions goes back years-long before he leveled the richest man in the world, as the government’s lead counsel in the Microsoft case, in a cross-examination that has already entered the legal legend books.
He’s had a long time to get used to it. Nearly 15 years ago, Mr. Boies was appearing on the cover of The New York Times Magazine , billed as “The Wall Street Lawyer Everyone Wants,” and American Lawyer had anointed him America’s most- sought-after trial lawyer. He was the lead defense lawyer in Pennzoil’s huge lawsuit against Texaco Inc. (a win); defended I.B.M. in an antitrust case (which, after 13 years, the U.S. government abandoned) and defended CBS against libel charges filed by General William Westmoreland (which the General dropped four months into the trial).
It has been an almost cartoonishly successful career-an unprecedented series of wins spanning the 80′s “Masters of the Universe” era, surviving the loutish “crime law pays” O.J. generation and re-emerging to usher in what may be a new kind of law practice: independent, intellectual and squeaky-clean.
It’s a practice that every big-firm partner chained to his midtown corner-office desk would kill for-assuming he or she could get Mr. Boies to handle the defense.
On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Mr. Boies, tanned and ruddy-cheeked, answered the door of his vast, red-brick mansion in Armonk, N.Y. Just a short distance away, in an office park, is the Boies, Schiller & Flexner firm that he founded when he did the unthinkable in 1997 and walked away from a 30-year career at the titan of white-shoe firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, over a client conflict.
It could have ended up as the punch line of “what ever happened to …?” Instead, his practice has grown at a hormone-enhanced rate from its quickly assembled core of five lawyers-friends, family and former colleagues of Mr. Boies-to nearly 90 attorneys. This is a vibrant firm, the partners harried yet exuding a sense of satisfaction as they talk about being forced to turn down work, opening new offices and collecting big judgments (including a satisfying $40 million victory in international arbitration against a company represented by Cravath).
You’d expect-maybe secretly hope for-Mr. Boies, now 59, to look a bit more worn than he does, understandably stretched thin by the deluge of important cases and demanding clients. Such should be the price of success. Instead, he opens the door looking relaxed and younger than his age, as though he regularly spends a lot of time outdoors. In fact, he had recently spent a week in Aspen on a business-and- biking summit with his firm’s other two named partners, Jonathan Schiller and Donald Flexner, doing long-term strategic planning for the firm.
He stands, smiling, in his house’s spacious foyer, which is nearly empty except for a few scattered Oriental rugs on the polished wood floor and walls covered with dozens of framed photographs of his family. Mr. Boies has become well-known for his allegedly plebeian tastes in clothes, food and recreation. They err toward Sears suits, cheeseburgers and, famously, gambling, all no doubt making him more attractive to the media. On this Friday morning at home, he was dressed simply in an L.L. Bean navy sports coat, a plaid button-down, jeans and chunky white Adidas sneakers.
His home, in contrast, has the feel of luxury. Uncluttered, high-ceilinged and sprawling, it sits on 12 acres and includes a stone patio, a pool and a tennis court. He and his wife, Mary Boies, designed the home and had it built when they moved permanently from Manhattan to Armonk in the late 80′s. Except for the hum of several riding mowers criss-crossing each other on the sprawling lawn outside, it is an utterly quiet and private retreat.
Mr. Boies has made himself considerably more accessible to the press than many of his former big-firm colleagues, yet he remains strangely low-key despite his many wins. It may be what has kept him at the top; people often describe him as gracious, a fitting word, evoking politeness and niceness-nothing personal.
And so it went in the book-and-photo-lined den in his Armonk home. He sat back calmly in an easy chair, nearly immobile, ignoring the frequent ringing and flashing lights of a phone on the table next to him. He answered questions slowly and simply, and to personal questions, he kept it short: “Yes,” “no” or just an affirmative smile. He does it with a relaxed, direct look, making it clear that he’ll reveal little more.
It is up to colleagues, clients and friends to explain what has made Mr. Boies such a consistent winner.
“He can process ideas faster than anyone,” said Jim Miller, a Florida lawyer who was Mr. Boies’ classmate in law school and is one of his closest friends. “He has a way of speaking, using parenthetical expressions in which he states his position, anticipates the rebuttal, rebuts it, and then restates his position, all in a way that is just absolutely unbelievable. That’s one of the reasons he’s such an effective jury-trial lawyer. He can reduce such complex ideas down to concepts that juries can understand.”
On a more basic level, Mr. Boies has the widely established (if unglamorous) reputation among clients, colleagues and foes of simply being the smartest guy around.
“He knows instinctively what’s important and not important,” said Robert Kindler, a former partner at Cravath who worked with Mr. Boies there. “I’ve sat with David in depositions and I have no idea why he’s asking the questions he’s asking …. He was born with incredible instincts.”
Mr. Boies was born in Illinois, but moved as a teenager to Southern California. He went to public schools in Compton and Fullerton, where both of his parents were schoolteachers. He said that he was a good student, not a great one, in part because he had dyslexia that was not diagnosed until he was an adult. Upon graduation, he married his high-school sweetheart-and debate partner-and worked in construction for a while. He became a bookkeeper in a bank and played bridge professionally, cementing a lifelong affection for card games by pulling in more from cards than in wages from the bank.
Two years later, he enrolled in the University of Redlands, a small Baptist college, completed three academic years in two, and earned his undergraduate degree during his first year at Northwestern Law School. By his third year, he had transferred to Yale, first to the economics department, where he did a year of graduate work, then to the law school. He had always played with the idea of being a teacher or a lawyer, and he still had not made up his mind. But the arrival of two children pushed him toward a law degree-it was quicker than a Ph.D. After graduating from Yale in 1966, he was hired at Cravath, where he became the protégé of Tom Barr, one of the firm’s most influential and respected partners.
Within six years-two years early-Mr. Boies had made partner. Except for two years in the late 1970′s spent in Washington, D.C., working with Ted Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spent his entire career, until 1997, at the firm.
It was at Cravath that Mr. Boies came to be known as something of an iconoclast. He wore a sports coat when none of the other partners did. Andrew Hayes, a former associate who came to Cravath to work with Mr. Boies and is now a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said Cravath assigned all young associates to a partner and then rotated them every year and a half. But when it came time for Mr. Hayes to move on, Mr. Boies simply decided to keep him.
Mr. Boies also staffed his cases differently from the typical big-firm pyramid structure.
“Typically, what you have is a case that’s heavily structured in which you have associates, junior partners and then partners, and this pyramid is feeding information up, and it’s organizing and filtering it until it gets to the lead trial lawyer,” Mr. Boies explained. “What I like to do is start at the bottom with all of the raw facts-with the documents and the depositions-and read them myself and construct my case from that raw material. I’ll try to take the facts, and go off and absorb them, learn them, think about them, and then come back with a case structure. Now they’re working off a framework that I’ve constructed. You don’t have the pyramid structure, it’s more like hub and spokes, where I’m dealing with all the lawyers on the case.”
He gets rid of layers of paralegals, associates and partners.
“I just know a lot more about the case, I know a lot more about the law, and I am inherently-because of my experience-a better lawyer than an associate,” he said. “What you’re doing in the conventional system is you are delegating to the least experienced person what I think is the most important job, which is to distinguish between the things that are relevant and the things that are not. I want to do that myself.”
Robert Silver, a colleague and friend of 20 years, now a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, described Mr. Boies’ work style-and his nature-as a combination of detachment and intensity.
“The detachment’s necessary in order not to be distracted by a lot of noise which is not central. You also need to have a huge amount of processing power-but that’s not enough,” Mr. Silver explained. “Then the intensity is to keep the energy on a very high level without the heat going up, otherwise you lose the detachment. That may be a way to describe grace-the effortlessness of combining facilities.”
It was with seeming effortlessness that Mr. Boies decided to leave his $2.1 million partnership at Cravath over a weekend in May of 1997. Within days, he had re-established himself some 40 miles north, amid the rolling hills of suburban Armonk.
The fallout was over George Steinbrenner. The New York Yankees owner was Mr. Boies’ client, and he was suing Major League Baseball for interfering with the Yankees’ sponsorship deal with Adidas. The suit alleged that baseball’s agency agreement, through which it marketed the trademarks of all 28 teams, stifled competition. But one of Cravath’s other clients was Time Warner Inc., which owned the Atlanta Braves, and Mr. Boies was told there was a conflict.
The Steinbrenner case was bold-it challenged baseball’s implicit exemption from antitrust laws-and Mr. Steinbrenner had a lot to lose. Mr. Boies kept the client and left the firm. Though it was a brassy enough move to wind up on the front page of The New York Times , it surprised no one that the person who made it was Mr. Boies.
What Matters Most
The new firm, at this point, turns down more than half of the work it’s offered, although the partners try to hold onto the cases that really interest them. Many, including Mr. Boies himself, referred to the Napster suit as the quintessential Boies case: complex, policy-laden, rife with procedural complications, having the potential to affect the allocation of power between Congress and the courts, and risky-in other words, far from an obvious winner. Mr. Boies is also one of the lead attorneys in a major class-action suit in Florida against the H.M.O. industry, and earlier this month initiated an antitrust case for EchoStar against General Motors, claiming that G.M. subsidiary DirecTV tried to squeeze their consumer-goods rival out of the electronics retail chains.
“I think interesting issues are more compelling to him than the rescue of certain people, or bringing down a particular person,” Judith Boies, his second wife (also a lawyer) said. “He could have been on the other side of Microsoft. I don’t think he was driven to it by nobility or idealism. He enjoys heroic postures-I think it gets the juices flowing.”
Lest there be a push for sainthood, the work also happens to be profitable. Should none of this year’s big contingency fees be disbursed before 2001, Mr. Boies would still make more than he did at Cravath.
But, by all accounts, Mr. Boies has pared his life down to its essentials. As one colleague described him, there are a very few things that matter-and the rest just don’t. Clothes and food-no sauces, no salads-don’t matter.
Wine does. He’s accumulated a collection of 5,000 bottles, mostly of Bordeaux and California reds, worth more than $1 million. The Armonk home was built with two temperature-controlled rooms in the basement. Many of the wines stored there are of commemorative years: a case of 1982 Bordeaux for his marriage to Mary, a 1983 for his daughter’s birth, another year for a grandchild’s birth.
When asked about the few things that are important to him, Mr. Boies’ answer was typically rapid and spare: “My family. My work.” He has been married three times and has six children, two by each wife, and he remains on good terms with both former wives. Three of the oldest children are lawyers in his firm. He has been described as “tribal”: very loyal to a very few.
He was scheduled to leave shortly on a biking trip to Provence with his wife, their eighth biking trip to France. For 20 years, he has been taking cross-country Jeep trips with one or two of his younger children at a time. He takes family trips twice a year: a small one in August and a full-family gathering in December, when he flies all the children and all the grandchildren from all the marriages to somewhere in the Caribbean.
For all of his quiet iconoclasm, though, Mr. Boies takes full responsibility for his unusual brand of success.
“The reason people conform, basically,” Mr. Boies said, in explaining his ability to operate outside the normal law-firm rules, “is because there is something that somebody has that you want enough to conform for. There just wasn’t anything that anybody had that I wanted to conform for.”