This is the way David Boies conducts himself when the battle is at its hottest, when losses are mounting and the enemy is preparing for the kill: he sits upright with his gold-framed reading glasses halfway down his nose, a pen and document in hand, while his paralegal, only a few feet away, performs a circus act involving two cell phones, a briefcase and an importunate reporter. Boies' pen makes sharply slanting scratches on a critical legal brief--just one stone in a brutal, driving hail of critical briefs--that must be filed immediately on behalf of Vice President Al Gore. Boies' celebrated Lands' End suit remains neatly buttoned; he wears his omnipresent black running shoes, one crossed over the other. He's not in a quiet conference room at one of the local law offices placed at his disposal but in a Tallahassee, Fla., hotel lobby. As he writes, Boies turns to today's edition of the tag-along journalist who always seems to be hovering nearby and asks, "How do you spell 'auspices'?"
This is the way David Boies, 59, conducts himself in the midst of the biggest case in a professional lifetime of huge cases, with the presidency teetering on the fulcrum of his arguments, with his back not to the wall but nearly through it. He acts as if he were waiting for tea to arrive. "Why should I worry?" he once asked his wife Mary, an accomplished lawyer, during another epic case several years ago. "Because I might lose? That's the worst thing that could happen to me?"
No lawyer in memory has ever won so much by losing. During the entire postelection ordeal, Boies was at its center daily, showing the all-news nation the astonishing gifts that have been thrilling his clients and irritating his more peevish opponents for three decades. Fourteen years ago, the New York Times Magazine certified his status with a cover piece headlined THE WALL STREET LAWYER EVERYONE WANTS. The story referred to "the biggest case of his, or any other corporate lawyer's, career"--a phrase that has since been attached to Boies as frequently as descriptions of his frumpy suits and the slabs of beef he likes to eat--without vegetables and without sauce, thank you.
Back then, the "biggest case" was an arcane smackdown between two huge oil companies, Pennzoil and Texaco. This year his efforts have had direct, determinative impact on the antitrust case against Microsoft, in which he represented the U.S. government; the half-billion-dollar settlement of a suit by his art-buyer clients against the world's two leading art-auction companies, Sotheby's and Christie's; the essential meaning of copyright on the Internet, which he is trying to establish on behalf of the music website Napster; and, supremely, the Tallahassee passion play. Back at the time of the Pennzoil-Texaco match, cbs general counsel George Vradenburg, who a few years earlier hired Boies to defend the network in a huge libel suit brought by General William Westmoreland, said, "Right now, David's got the hot hand."
But if Boies had a hot hand then, what do you call what he's holding today? Vradenburg, now a senior executive with America Online, says, "David gets newly discovered by every generation."