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John Edwards is starting a new Raleigh law firm

RALEIGH John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate whose political career was derailed by a sex scandal that transfixed the nation, is returning to what initially thrust him into the public spotlight: practicing law.

In a Monday afternoon interview with The News & Observer, Edwards said he is reuniting with his former law partner, prominent trial lawyer David Kirby, to form the law firm Edwards Kirby.

Edwards, who at 60 retains the boyish good looks that were such an asset during his years in politics, talked enthusiastically about returning to the courtroom and fighting well-heeled defendants on behalf of people who’ve been wronged.

“I loved it for the decades I did it, and I think it’s what I was born to do,” he said.

Before he launched his successful candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Edwards cemented a reputation as a formidable trial lawyer whose meticulous preparation, choirboy appearance and soft-spoken, down-to-earth manner wowed juries and produced a string of big verdicts.

According to the trade journal Lawyer’s Weekly, he won at least $152.4 million for his clients – people who blamed their severe, if not horrific, injuries on doctors, hospitals, trucking companies and other businesses. Those victories made Edwards a multimillionaire.

Edwards gave interviews to a few media outlets on Monday – his first interviews in several years – to discuss the launch of the new firm.

He responded with a quick “no” when asked if he foresees ever running for office again – and declined when asked if he wanted to qualify that answer in any way.

He also said he’s not concerned that his affair and child with Rielle Hunter while his late wife Elizabeth Edwards was fighting cancer might lead juries to be unsympathetic to his cases.

The decades he spent in courtrooms, Edwards said, taught him that juries decide cases “based on the evidence that is given to them, based on the law that is given to them, how thoroughly the case is presented to them. Courtrooms are not a place where, in my experience, showmanship and flamboyance wins out. Hard work and having a case that is true and meritorious wins out.”

As for the possibility of rehabilitating his image, Edwards said: “I can tell you that I’m in the business of helping other people. If I’m doing things for the right reasons, for others, I’ll let other things take care of themselves.”

Firm to have broad scope

Edwards called his once-and-future partner, Kirby, whom he has known since their first day of law school together at UNC-Chapel Hill, “the best lawyer I know.” Kirby is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only group that boasts its members are “the best 100 trial lawyers in the country.”

The two lawyers worked together on some of Edwards’ best-known cases, including winning a $25 million jury verdict for a 9-year-old Cary girl whose intestines were sucked out by an uncovered swimming pool drain. At the time it was the largest personal injury verdict ever in North Carolina.

The new firm has six attorneys and plans to open its doors for business Tuesday in offices that are across the hall from the original firm on Glenwood Avenue. The new firm also features another lawyer named Edwards – his oldest daughter Cate.

Kirby said his previous firm, Kirby & Holt, has been dissolved and that two other lawyers formerly with that firm are joining Edwards Kirby.

Although the original firm formed by Edwards and Kirby focused “almost exclusively” on wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases, Kirby said the reincarnated firm will have a broader scope. It also will take on civil rights and discrimination lawsuits and “consumer protection issues” such as fraud against consumers and small businesses.

The firm has two offices – the second is in Washington, D.C. – and plans to accept cases from across the country. Many out-of-state cases would involve teaming up with local attorneys.

Edwards Kirby will work on contingency fees, which means it receives a percentage of any jury award or settlement and receives nothing at all in a losing case.

“It’s really a big thing for us to level the playing field, to give regular people who have been treated unfairly a chance against really powerful opponents and well-funded opponents,” John Edwards said.

Edwards’ all-American-boy image was shattered in the wake of revelations that, during his 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he had an affair with his videographer, Hunter.

His late wife, Elizabeth, a fellow law student at UNC-Chapel Hill whom he married the day after he passed the bar, was cast as “The Good Wife” in the ensuing media coverage. Elizabeth Edwards was an especially sympathetic figure because she was battling cancer in the midst of her husband’s affair – a battle that she ultimately lost.

John Edwards declined to discuss his current relationship with Hunter.

‘He’s my dad’

Cate Edwards, 31, a graduate of Harvard Law School, said her father inspired her to become a lawyer and that “it has always been a dream of mine to work with him.”

“I know my dad really well, we’ve been through a lot together, and I know in his heart he really, truly cares about his clients and he really, truly cares about the practice of law,” she said.

“Plus,” she said, “he’s my dad, and I love him very much.”

Cate Edwards sat behind her father throughout his criminal trial last year on charges that he violated campaign finance law by secretly obtaining more than $900,000 from a pair of donors to hide his then-pregnant mistress. She listened as witnesses recounted seamy details of his affair and volatile arguments between her parents.

Working through it all

After the six-week trial in Greensboro, a federal jury found Edwards not guilty on one charge and failed to reach a verdict on five other charges. Federal prosecutors decided not to retry the case.

Cate Edwards has told other interviewers that she and her father have worked through the pain his affair caused.

She launched and heads the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation, which provides support for disadvantaged students, in honor of her mother.

She also co-founded a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., Edwards & Eubanks, more than a year ago. She and her partner Sharon Eubanks now comprise Edwards Kirby’s Washington office.

John Edwards began his career in Nashville, Tenn., as a lawyer for the defense. He defended banks, insurance companies and other businesses at a law firm headed by former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

The son of a textile worker who grew up in the small Moore County town of Robbins, Edwards returned to the state in 1981 and joined the blue-chip Raleigh law firm now known as Tharrington Smith. There he rolled up a string of multimillion-dollar verdicts before departing in 1993 to start his own firm with Kirby.

Edwards said he’s not returning to the law because he needs the money, but declined to discuss his finances.

“I’m going to respectfully decline to talk about my personal finances,” he said. “I’m not running for anything now.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877
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