YOU could put together a pretty decent little law firm drawing on just the leading presidential candidates.
It would have two former prosecutors, one intense and the other folksy, a civil litigator from a tony regional firm, a superstar trial lawyer and that scrappy kid from Harvard who gave up the big money to do civil rights work. (O.K., it would also sound like a pitch for a doomed TV show.)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Fred D. Thompson all have law degrees, and all but Mr. Romney worked as lawyers for years before entering politics. But the practices they pursued, and how they handled themselves in the process, say something about their values and temperaments, and perhaps provide the outlines of how they would conduct a presidency.
There is certainly something of the commercial litigator’s polish and caution in Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Giuliani’s moral certainty is reflected in his crusades against government corruption, organized crime and insider trading when he was the United States attorney in Manhattan. And Mr. Edwards’s populism and appetite for risk has roots in his enormous success as a lawyer for injured plaintiffs.
But it may be the small moments, the war stories and trial vignettes, that illuminate the candidates most.
The first jury trial Mrs. Clinton handled on her own, for instance, concerned the rear end of a rat in a can of pork and beans. She represented the cannery, and she argued that there had been no real harm, as the plaintiff did not actually eat the rat. “Besides,” she wrote in her autobiography, describing her client’s position, “the rodent parts which had been sterilized might be considered edible in certain parts of the world.”
The jury seemed to buy her argument, more or less, as it awarded only token damages. But no one was particularly happy about the case or her performance. Her former partner, Webster L. Hubbell, told one of her biographers that she was “amazingly nervous” in speaking to the jury.
Mr. Giuliani, in an unusual move, personally handled the 10-week corruption trial of a Bronx political leader in 1986 while he was United States attorney. His work was methodical and not particularly flashy, but he went overboard in his closing argument. “A certain kind of passion threw him off,” the judge told the jurors, saying they should ignore parts of what Mr. Giuliani had said.
Mr. Edwards’s first case as a plaintiffs’ lawyer was for a man who had overdosed on a drug used in alcohol aversion therapy. Just before jurors began deliberations, he got a settlement offer of $750,000, a huge sum in North Carolina in 1984, and one his client was initially eager to accept. But Mr. Edwards, though he was green, liked his chances and rolled the dice. The jury awarded $3.7 million.
“He came over here and ate our lunch,” said O. E. Starnes, who represented a doctor who was a defendant in the case.
As a federal prosecutor in Nashville almost 40 years ago, Mr. Thompson specialized in bank robbery cases. He tried 15 of them, and won 14. But he had mixed feelings about going after people for selling hooch. “My old granddaddy is probably turning over in his grave about my prosecuting moonshiners,” he told The Washington Post in 1985.
Mr. Obama apparently did no trial work, and he chose not to trade his golden credentials, including the presidency of The Harvard Law Review, for a big-money job at a corporate firm. Instead, he worked at a small Chicago civil rights firm, representing people who said they had been discriminated against or denied the right to vote.
“He was a good lawyer working a very hard beat,” said Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, where Mr. Obama taught constitutional law.
But Mr. Obama sometimes seemed ambivalent about the law. In his 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he wrote that the law could be “a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power — and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.”
Twenty-five of the 42 presidents, according to the American Bar Association, have been lawyers, many of them distinguished. Eight, for instance, argued cases before the United States Supreme Court. (William Howard Taft became chief justice.)
But the legal culture has changed in recent years, emphasizing a sort of selection and specialization that would have seemed unfamiliar to John Adams or Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Edwards, for instance, was known for choosing his cases with care.
“He was very selective,” said James P. Cooney III, who defended a dozen medical malpractice cases brought by Mr. Edwards. “He only took the best cases, and by that I don’t mean the ones with the highest damages. I mean the ones where somebody had done something really bad.”
Mr. Edwards as president could choose some of his fights, but he’d also have to confront crises as they arose.