Lawyers across North Carolina had the same rule of thumb about going up against John Edwards: Never let him near a jury. Edwards’s appeal as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination may have jolted the pundits — given a political résumé that begins and ends with five years in the U.S. Senate — but it was no surprise to hundreds of doctors, trucking company officials and manufacturers who had faced him in court.

“The problem was that all the older women wanted to take him home as their son, and all the younger ones wanted to go out with him,” rued an attorney for several doctors sued by Edwards on behalf of brain-damaged babies. “You’d think, ‘Okay, if the women like him, the men must hate him.’ But then the guys just saw him as one of them.”

In barely 15 years, beginning at age 31, he won more than $175 million in settlements and verdicts — $3.7 million for an alcoholic permanently disabled by an overdose of the drug Antabuse; $6.5 million for a 4-year-old boy whose parents were crushed by a speeding tractor-trailer; $25 million for a 5-year-old girl who lost most of her intestines when she sat atop an unprotected wading-pool drain. Based on data kept by North Carolina Lawyers’ Weekly, no other trial lawyer in the state came close.

His strengths as a campaigner were all there, they say now — the easy-listening oratory that makes everything sound simple, the common touch, the steely self-assurance swaddled in Southern respectfulness, the driving ambition.

Adversaries as well as partners said he routinely out-prepared and outperformed them. But his biggest distinction was what more than one called an “unnerving” appetite for putting his case before a jury, even though most victories — his included — came in settlements, not trials. Knowing his record — of about 70 trials over 15 years, defense and plaintiffs lawyers said he lost only two or three — defendants offered hefty settlements to avoid a showdown.

That trait also has a parallel in Edwards the campaigner. ” ‘Let me put my case to the jury,’ ‘Let me debate George Bush.’ It’s exactly the same thing,” said Dan McLamb, a malpractice defense lawyer who is a close friend of Edwards.

Edwards now speaks almost interchangeably of jurors and voters. “I trusted them because of the way I grew up, with ordinary Americans,” he said of juries in an interview Friday, much as he often mentions his son-of-a-mill-worker origins to voters.

Another link between Edwards’s law career and his candidacy is that the law made him fantastically wealthy. He spent $6 million of his own money in 1998, when he defeated Republican Lauch Faircloth to win his Senate seat. Contributions from wealthy trial lawyers dominate his presidential fundraising. His financial disclosure statement puts his assets between $8.7 million and $36.5 million, largely from fees of 25 percent to 40 percent on verdicts and settlements. (Plaintiffs’ lawyers typically take cases for no charge up front, and are paid only if the client wins. Edwards said he took no fee in some hardship cases.)

Scroll to Top