David Boies On How Dyslexia Shaped His Practice

By Erin Coe | August 13, 2018, 10:31 PM EDT

David Boies, the chairman of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP

David Boies has an oral argument style that many trial lawyers strive to emulate. Before a jury, he strikes a conversational tone, rarely relies on notes and has a knack for breaking down complex subjects in a clear, accessible way.

The style is complemented by his ability to summon facts, often at just the right moment. And while Boies' strong memory is likely a combination of a number of factors, he says his dyslexia — a learning disorder that makes reading difficult — also may play a role.

The chairman of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP is known for his work on high-stakes cases, including the government's antitrust battle against Microsoft Corp. starting in the late 1990s, the recount debacle in the 2000 presidential election, and the case that cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry in California.

He's also been in the news over his involvement with disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein after The New York Times and The New Yorker reported in November on Boies' role in hiring a private spy firm to help Weinstein suppress an article detailing sexual misconduct allegations. Boies has disputed the extent of his role in the effort, and he called his involvement with the investigators "a mistake." He has since severed ties with Weinstein. 

In December, Boies was re-elected to lead Boies Schiller. And more recently, he was part of a team that clinched a U.S. Supreme Court win for U.S. vitamin C purchasers Animal Science Products Inc. and The Ranis Co. in a $147 million price-fixing case against Chinese companies.

Now 77, Boies learned of his dyslexia when he was a partner in his 30s at Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP in Manhattan, after his kindergarten-age son was tested for the learning disability. Boies has raised two sons who have dyslexia, and both are now lawyers.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Law360: You didn't find out you had dyslexia until you were in your 30s. What was it like growing up?

David Boies: I grew up in a small farming community in northern Illinois in the 1940s, and at that point, I don't know that anybody in town had ever heard of dyslexia. All I knew was that I was very slow in reading. I didn't read at all until I was in the third grade, and I continued to read very slowly.

On the other hand, I was good in other subjects, and for me and my friends, I was just better at some things than I was at others. And I don't think anybody, including me, thought of it as a particular disability.

After your diagnosis, did you ever think of yourself as disabled?

I think of dyslexia as a difference, not a disability. It's a difference that can have, in many contexts, a disadvantage to it, but it's also a difference that can have advantages. And I think it is a difference that once you have adapted to it, it does not represent a disability.

It's an input difference. It's not a processing difference. One of the problems with dyslexia is that input differences, particularly with respect to reading, affect children at the time that they are the most vulnerable and at the time when input is the most important. The primary way people learn is by reading in most schools. If you have difficulty reading, you are, at that point in your life, at a significant disadvantage to your peers.

Later in life, reading and input in general become less important. What's more important is what you do with the information you have — how you process it, how you relate to other people, your judgment, the conclusions you draw, your analytical abilities. Those are the things that predominantly affect how you perform as an adult, and in my case, as a lawyer. And those attributes are not adversely affected by dyslexia.

By the time that you get to the position I was in when I was first diagnosed, dyslexia need not be a disability.

Were you doing things a certain way in your practice that were maybe a little bit different than other attorneys?

I've always been somebody who, for example, tends to talk without notes. I knew that was because I had difficulty reading notes.

Once I learned I had dyslexia, I knew why I had difficulty reading notes. It didn't give me more of an insight into that difference in approach. I already knew why I didn't use notes. I just didn't know why I couldn't read well [laughs].

You are known for having a really superior memory. Do you think dyslexia may have played some kind of role in that or do you think that it's just a strength you've always had and it is unrelated?

I think it's probably a little of both. I think my memory probably has some genetic basis independent of dyslexia. But I also think that the fact of my dyslexia has led to two things in terms of adapting to it.

One is, in part because I read slowly, I have time to focus on what I'm reading, and so I've got very high comprehension, and I think that helps in terms of remembering.

The second thing is that because I do read slowly, that puts a premium on selecting what I read and what I focus on. And so that will enable me to concentrate on what is more important.

Would you say there are certain cases that might be harder to work on when you have dyslexia?

I think anything that has a lot of jargon and initials and the like presents some challenges because it's a little bit like learning a foreign language. But if you're patient, you can learn those things.

Do you think that there is some awareness at law firms of invisible disabilities like dyslexia?

I think it does probably run the gamut, but I don't think any law firm has much attention to or understanding of dyslexia or any of the other invisible differences or disabilities.

Why is that?

Because they are invisible in a sense. If somebody is deaf or blind or [uses] a wheelchair, you understand what their issue is. But somebody who is dyslexic — remember these people have already gotten through law school, and if you're at a big firm, they've gotten through law school with good grades. The fact that they have differences in the way they read doesn't really show up.

You may never see an associate who is preparing a memo takes a lot longer than another associates to read the cases. All you're going to see is the memo or brief that they ultimately prepare, and that is unlikely to bear any evidence of dyslexia.

Do you think law firms are creating a welcoming environment for attorneys with disabilities?

I don't think it's hostile, but I don't think it's welcoming either.

I think the law firm environment tends to look at what the lawyer produces, not how they produce it. Some lawyers may read better, some may listen better, some may be quicker at writing.

All those differences get combined in the work product. And I think it's the work product that people look at, not how the lawyer got there.

What has your advice been for individuals with dyslexia, particularly for those who are interested in pursuing a legal career?

One of the pieces of advice is to be patient. Another piece of advice is not to get discouraged.

Understand that the challenges that you face, while they never entirely go away, the significance of them and the degree to which they affect your performance do change radically as you get older and as your judgment and analytical abilities and processing capabilities swap with whatever differences in reading you may have with your peers.

Erin Coe is a feature reporter who last wrote about the stigma surrounding mental illness in the legal profession. Editing by Jocelyn Allison, Jeremy Barker and Katherine Rautenberg.

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