November 18, 2013, 11:01 pm 76 Comments
John Edwards Revisits His Past, Hanging Law Shingle Again
By PETER LATTMAN and KIM SEVERSON
From left, David Kirby, John Edwards and his daughter Cate. The three will work at the new firm, Edwards Kirby.
Before he served as a United States senator, before he made a run at the presidency and before his political career collapsed amid a sex scandal and fraud trial, John Edwards was a trial lawyer.
Now, Mr. Edwards is returning to his roots and opening a new law practice. The plaintiffs’ firm, Edwards Kirby, reunites him with his former partner, David F. Kirby, and includes on its payroll his eldest daughter, Cate Edwards.
“The reason we formed this firm is because we all believe in the same thing — in standing up for the disenfranchised and those who need an equal chance,” Mr. Edwards said in a telephone interview from his offices in Raleigh, N.C. “That’s why we exist.”
The path back for the 60-year-old Mr. Edwards began in earnest in May 2012, when a federal jury in Greensboro declared a mistrial on five corruption charges and acquitted him on one more. Prosecutors charged Mr. Edwards with misusing nearly $1 million in campaign donations to hide a pregnant mistress as he reached for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
Mr. Edwards walked out of court with his law license intact and vindicated legally, but the blow to his family, reputation and ego was devastating.
For nearly six weeks, a jury — and by extension, a nation — heard about Mr. Edwards’s most intimate sexual secrets and the string of public lies he told regarding his affair with his campaign videographer and her subsequent pregnancy. The trial laid bare Mr. Edwards’s efforts to conceal his mistress from his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, an accomplished lawyer who was engaged in a public fight with breast cancer.
Since the trial, Mr. Edwards has done much to repair his family and personal life. He has remained based in his sprawling home in the countryside not far from Chapel Hill, tending to Emma Claire, 15, and Jack, 13, two of the four children he had with Mrs. Edwards.
His son, Wade, was killed in a car wreck when he was 16.
Mrs. Edwards had separated from Mr. Edwards in 2010, but never legally divorced him, and died in December of that year.
On Tuesday, Mr. Edwards was reluctant to discuss his personal life, and refused to address reports that he has been dating a 35-year-old single mother. He did acknowledge, however, that his legal practice would require finding additional child care for Emma Claire and Jack.
“I’m their sole parent and there is nothing more important than being the best father I can be,” he said. “I’m going to have to get some extra help for them.”
Mr. Edwards also discussed his relationship with his youngest daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, now 5 years old and living in Charlotte with her mother, Rielle Hunter. “I see her regularly and I love her,” he said of his daughter, who goes by Quinn.
Over the last year, Mr. Edwards has continued his work fighting poverty. He traveled to El Salvador and Haiti to work with Michael Bonderer, who runs Homes from the Heart, an organization that builds houses for the poor in impoverished countries.
In a telephone interview from El Salvador Monday, Mr. Bonderer said that Mr. Edwards had always talked about a plan that centered on a law practice, his children and his efforts to close the gap between what he called in his campaigns the “two Americas.”
He said that Mr. Edwards always knew the road back would not be easy. “Poor Edwards has to deal with a cynicism no matter what,” he said. “He’s got to walk the gantlet no matter what. He’s just going to have to invest the time to go through all that.”
It has helped his public image to have the staunch support of his daughter Cate Edwards. Armed with a law degree from Harvard, Ms. Edwards was a major player in her father’s criminal trial, sitting behind him every day of the proceedings and offering legal strategy. In 2011, she married Trevor Upham, an oncologist, and eventually moved with him to Washington and opened a legal practice with Sharon Eubanks specializing in civil rights cases. That firm, Edwards & Eubanks, will become Edwards Kirby’s Washington office.
“It’s a dream to be able to work with my dad, who inspired me to become a lawyer in the first place,” said the 31-year-old Ms. Edwards.
Before entering politics, Mr. Edwards earned a fortune as a plaintiffs’ lawyer, casting himself as the champion of the little guy. He focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases, obtaining multiple multimillion-dollar verdicts from doctors, hospitals and corporations.
His command of the courtroom and persuasiveness with juries often led adversaries to settle rather than face off against him at trial. Insurance companies held seminars about how to deal with Mr. Edwards.
In 1993, Mr. Edwards formed his own firm with Mr. Kirby, his classmate from the University of North Carolina School of Law. “John is happiest when he’s practicing law, working 20 hours a day with causes to fight for,” Mr. Kirby said.
Mr. Edwards sounded energized discussing his new firm, which will start with six lawyers. He said that the practice would focus on three areas: personal injury law, consumer rights cases and civil rights litigation. Already, Mr. Edwards said, he has entertained taking a variety of assignments, including a potential price-fixing case and a wrongful death matter involving an electrocution.
But he has not been in courtroom since the late 1990s, notwithstanding last year’s experience as a criminal defendant. Looking back on his trial, Mr. Edwards said that it reinforced his belief in the justice system.
“I trust juries,” Mr. Edwards said. “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.”
He dismissed concerns that his humiliating downfall and public lies about his affair while his wife was battling cancer would impede his ability to attract clients.
“You build trust and earn respect the same way today as the first day I started practicing law,” he said. “By hard work, by caring about the people you represent, by presenting your case in the most thorough and professional manner possible and by arguing your heart out.”
Mr. Edwards coordinated the announcement of his firm with a public relations agency. When asked why he did not simply just start working, he said he wanted people to know that he was practicing law again.
He then offered the kind of pitch one might see on a billboard or hear on a commercial break from an afternoon soap opera.
“If you’ve been treated unfairly and you believe you have a legal case,” he said, “all of us at Edwards Kirby are available to help you.”