Before the presidential campaigns and the tabloid drama, John Edwards was the closest thing to a rock star the North Carolina Bar had ever seen. In the 1980s and ’90s, Edwards won tens of millions of dollars for his clients — mostly in medical malpractice cases — with a combination of exhaustive research and an unmatched ability to win over juries with his folksy charm.
Now Edwards — his political career ended by revelations that he cheated on his terminally ill wife and accusations that he misappropriated campaign funds to cover up the affair — is trying to reclaim his place as one of the most successful trial lawyers in North Carolina. In May of last year, a federal jury acquitted Edwards on one corruption charge brought against him by the Justice Department and were unable to come to a unanimous decision on five others, bringing Edwards’ legal troubles to an end. And on Monday, he announced he’s teaming up with his old law partner David Kirby, the man with whom he won his most lucrative cases in the 1990s, and his eldest daughter Kate Edwards to once again practice law.
Andy Penry, an attorney with the North Carolina–based law firm Penry Riemann, worked with Edwards from 1983 to ’86 when they were both just beginning their careers, and he has no doubt that the former vice-presidential nominee will be able to regain his place atop North Carolina’s legal hierarchy. “He’s just the best lawyer I’ve ever seen,” says Penry. “Even in those days, when he was a three- or four-year lawyer, he just has a natural ability to analyze cases and to understand how to present them and to connect with juries.”
Edwards leveraged those skills to great effect in cases like Lakey v. Sta-Rite Industries, in which he won a $25 million jury verdict after Valarie Lakey, a 5-year-old girl, was partially disemboweled by a suction outlet at a local wading pool. The settlement was the biggest in North Carolina history.
The crux of the case was whether Sta-Rite Industries was responsible for Lakey’s injury by manufacturing a drain cover that could be easily removed and therefore endanger children playing in the pool. Edwards found 12 other instances where injuries occurred in a similar fashion to Lakey’s and eventually persuaded a jury to hold the company responsible. Edwards sealed the case with a dramatic, 90-minute closing argument in which he invoked the recent death of his teenage son in a car accident and a community’s responsibility to care for its children.
The Sta-Rite case was the crowning achievement of Edwards’ career as a trial lawyer. It was also his last big case before giving up his practice to run for the Senate in 1998. Edwards won that race and followed it up with failed presidential bids in 2004 — when he also became the Democratic vice-presidential nominee — and 2008. Then the wheels came off as it was revealed that Edwards had fathered a child with a campaign worker while his wife was battling breast cancer.
Edwards, for one, believes that future juries will be able to see past his personal foibles. “I trust juries,” he said in a recent interview with the New York Times. “They closely listen to the evidence that’s presented to them. They listen to the law and, they collectively do what they believe is right. My years in courtrooms, both as a lawyer and in what I just went through, lead me to that same conclusion.”
Others aren’t so sure. Mike Dayton, an attorney and former editor of the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, acknowledges Edwards’ reputation for legal acumen and exhaustive preparation. “I think he can get up to speed very quickly with the skills he has as a trial lawyer,” Dayton says.
But it’s impossible to look at Edwards’ track record as a trial lawyer and not think that his personal failings won’t hamper his famous ability to connect with juries, as his admirers say he was so deft at doing. “The bigger issue is that of character,” says Dayton. “He’s going to have to work to establish trust with jurors. He’ll have to address that square on because everyone knows who he is and his story.”