Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards emerged from a very public sex scandal with his reputation tarnished, but his law license intact.
The former vice presidential nominee and two-time presidential candidate last year successfully fended off federal allegations of campaign finance law violations in connection with a marital affair with Rielle Hunter — a relationship that produced a child and pushed him out of politics. Last week he announced a new law practice, Edwards Kirby, with his daughter Cate and former law partner David Kirby.
Other lawyers embroiled in some of the biggest scandals to hit the legal world over the past decade haven’t fared as well. Some went to jail, some were disbarred and all had to face the court of public opinion.
The National Law Journal took a look back at eight scandals that rocked the profession, and what the lawyers involved are up to today.
ON THE REBOUND
JOHN EDWARDS: During the 1980s and 1990s, Edwards dominated the North Carolina plaintiffs bar, winning record-breaking verdicts and settlements. One term in the U.S. Senate, two failed presidential campaigns and a sex scandal later, Edwards is re-entering private practice with his new firm, which has offices in Raleigh and Washington. More than a year after a jury acquitted him of a campaign finance law violation and hung on the rest of the charges, Edwards told The National Law Journal he’d been contacted by a number of potential clients. Practicing law, he said, is “what I was born to do.”
ELIOT SPITZER: Liaisons with a high-priced prostitute at a Washington hotel cost the “Sheriff of Wall Street” his seat in the New York governor’s mansion. After resigning his office in 2008, Spitzer re-emerged as a television pundit. His hopes for a political comeback were dashed this year after he lost his bid to become New York City comptroller. His New York state bar report listed an address and phone number for his family’s real estate business in New York. He did not return a request for comment.
OUT TO PASTURE
MARK BELNICK: Belnick ditched corporate life after a jury cleared him of charges that he helped his former employer, Tyco International Ltd., cover up malfeasance. The former Tyco general counsel, previously a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, launched a solo practice following his acquittal in 2004. In a 2005 interview with USA Today, Belnick said he wanted to help others who were wrongly accused. He didn’t return a request for comment.
STANLEY CHESLEY: The famed “Prince of Torts” and “Master of Disaster” announced his retirement this year after being disbarred by the Kentucky Supreme Court. Chesley, widely considered a pioneer of mass tort litigation, was accused of taking excessive fees and mishandling a settlement for plaintiffs who sued over health problems associated with the diet drug fen-phen. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted Chesley’s resignation from the high court’s bar. He did not return a request for comment.
CHARGED AND CONVICTED
RICHARD “DICKIE” SCRUGGS: Scruggs went back to jail in April after losing an appeal of his 2009 conviction for attempting to bribe a Mississippi state judge. Before he ran afoul of the law, Scruggs earned a reputation as the “King of Torts,” famously taking on the tobacco industry and winning a $246 billion settlement. He entered guilty pleas in 2008 and 2009 to bribery, but was released in December 2012 to pursue his appeal. Scruggs petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case after losing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, to no avail.
MARC DREIER: Dreier will likely go down as one of the major fraudsters of the past decade — no small feat considering he was sent to jail around the same time as Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. Dreier was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding hedge-fund clients and other victims of hundreds of millions of dollars. Dreier’s eponymous firm collapsed in a flurry of lateral moves and new ventures, particularly in entertainment law, as once-affiliated lawyers jumped ship.
WILLIAM LERACH, MELVYN WEISS, DAVID BERSHAD, STEVEN SCHULMAN: The once-fearsome foursome of securities class actions were convicted of paying illegal kickbacks to lead plaintiffs. All four were disbarred, but they’ve stayed busy since leaving jail. In an interview, Lerach said he’s been giving talks on finance and the law, but doesn’t miss the practice. “I don’t think I had any master plan,” he said. “I came home to a … wonderful supportive family and was lucky enough to not have been ruined financially.” Weiss launched a mediation and consulting company in Florida. In May, he was spared a return to prison after he was caught in Boynton Beach, Fla., driving 90 miles per hour while intoxicated, in violation of the terms of his supervised release. Weiss, Bershad and Schulman couldn’t be reached or didn’t return a request for comment.
PIERCE O’DONNELL: Reimbursing ­employees who contributed to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ 2004 presidential campaign landed O’Donnell behind bars. He spent 60 days in jail and a year on supervised release. O’Donnell was once a successful plaintiffs lawyer, previously representing columnist Art Buchwald in a dispute over the idea for 1988′s “Coming to America” and securing a billion-dollar settlement from Sempra Energy following the California energy crisis. O’Donnell, who couldn’t be reached for comment, could return to the law someday — he was suspended, but not disbarred, from the State Bar of California.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Diego M. Radzinschi (Spitzer); ZUMAPRESS.com (Pierce); Andy Snow (Chesley); AP Photo (Belnick); Rick Kopstein (Dreier); AP Photo (Scruggs); Travis Long (Edwards); David Maung/Bloomberg/Getty Images (Lerach).