Renouncing any further political ambitions, former U.S. senator and two-time Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has returned to the practice of law, confident that potential clients and juries will look past the personal transgressions that pushed him from public life.
Edwards is joining forces with his daughter Cate and former law partner David Kirby to launch EdwardsKirby, a plaintiffs firm with a public interest focus.
One of the most successful trial lawyers in North Carolina history, Edwards, 60, said Monday in an interview with The National Law Journal that practicing law is “what I was born to do.”
His image was tarnished by a very public sex scandal, when in 2008 he fathered a child by his then-mistress Rielle Hunter while his wife Elizabeth was battling breast cancer. Edwards, whose wife died two years later, initially denied paternity, going along with a claim that an aide fathered the child—details that were re-aired in a federal campaign finance prosecution against him and a pair of tell-all books.
The question is, will juries hold his misdeeds against him? Edwards said he didn’t think so.
“What I know is that juries do the right thing over and over and over,” Edwards said in an interview Monday in Raleigh. “They judge cases as they should, based on what’s put in front of them. … I still believe they’ll do that.”
Edwards spoke with the NLJ in his law office in Raleigh alongside Cate Edwards and Kirby.
Edwards said point blank that he’s done with politics. When asked whether he still harbored political ambitions, he responded with a single word: “Nope.” Edwards was elected to the Senate from North Carolina in 1998—he stopped practicing law then—and was the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, running alongside John Kerry. In January 2008, he abandoned his presidential primary race—a month before Rielle Hunter gave birth to their daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter.
Before joining the Senate, Edwards spent 20 years practicing law, winning 54 verdicts and settlements of more than $1 million, according to Lawyers Weekly, including a record $25 million on behalf of a 5-year-old girl who was disemboweled by a pool drain.
Edwards himself has stressed that “trials are about credibility—if a jury is to believe in your case, the jury must believe you,” as he wrote in his 2004 memoir Four Trials. “You have to earn their trust, and after you have earned it, you have to earn it again, every day.”
Some lawyers predict Edwards will be able to win that trust back.
“A lot of people have overcome worse things than what Johnny was involved in. He can probably overcome it,” said Joseph Rice, a name partner at South Carolina plaintiffs firm Motley Rice. “Juries decide cases based on the law and the facts, not on who the plaintiffs lawyer is.”
Elizabeth Lampert, president of the legal media and crisis firm ELPR, said the number of sex scandals involving other politicians—Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, among others—”has on some level desensitized us to cheating behavior.”
Edwards’ “personal uphill battle is a steep one. However, he has always been known as a talented litigator with a strong ability to connect,” Lampert said. Edwards has been out of the limelight for more than a year—a wise move, Lampert said, to let public memory fade.
Edwards last made news in June 2012, when the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would not retry him for six alleged campaign finance violations.
Government prosecutors said he improperly used nearly $1 million from wealthy backers to support his mistress. However, the money had not been funneled through the campaign or declared as a political contribution and the government’s case faltered. A North Carolina jury acquitted Edwards on one count and deadlocked on the remaining five.
Edwards declined to comment about the case.
During the past 17 months, Edwards said, he’s been working on his return to the practice of law.
“Since I reactivated my law license, I’ve been contacted by a lot of people about representing them,” he said. He said the firm has picked a group of cases, including potential matters in Hawaii, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and New York.
The six-lawyer firm has offices in Raleigh, where both Edwards and Kirby are based, and in Washington, where the firm has merged with Edwards & Eubanks. That two-lawyer public interest firm in Washington was founded last year by Cate Edwards and Sharon Eubanks, who led the Justice Department’s civil racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
One key difference between the new firm and the old Edwards & Kirby, which the longtime friends founded in 1993 and was later renamed Kirby & Holt, is the firm’s footprint.
The original partnership practiced primarily within the state of North Carolina, but the new firm is national. Edwards said he anticipates going to trial around the country—and he wasn’t concerned about his ability to connect with non-Tar Heel jurors.
“I didn’t come to talk about politics, but I know from politics that we can do it anywhere,” he said.
Also, the original firm primarily handled cases involving catastrophic injury and death, while the new firm has a broader portfolio. Kirby said the focus would be on three areas: civil rights and discrimination; consumer rights and protection; and safety, including medical malpractice and product liability.
“This firm intends to limit its practice to a selected group of cases that hopefully will not only have impact on individuals involved, but have a broader impact on the law,” Kirby said.
Reducing poverty was one of Edwards’ signature issues as a politician. He said EdwardsKirby wants to use the law “as a tool to right social inequities, to level the playing field.”
The scandals that surrounded Edwards might prove problematic for some potential clients, said William Isaacson, a partner in the Washington office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner and a longtime litigator. But for others, Edwards’ experience and name could prove a draw. “It’s not just the bad—he’s also been a very, very high-level person in our country, so [clients] may weigh the good with the bad,” he said.
As for Edwards, he all but gushed about his return to life as a lawyer.
“There’s no way I can express to you how inspiring and uplifting it is for me to go back to doing what I love,” he said. “That’s where my heart is. I think it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Contact Jenna Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zoe Tillman contributed to this report.