Don Nichols was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He was writing books and chairing national legal conferences. He was Minnesota's top drunken-driving defense attorney, winning many of his 1,500 DWI cases.

Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer even passed his lawyer's business cards around the locker room after Nichols twice won him acquittals.

Despite $7,000 a case in fees and cascades of referrals, representing drunken drivers began to eat away at Nichols. He'd become tagged in legal circles as "the DWI guy, as if that was all I could do."

So 15 years ago, at the apex of his lucrative specialty, Nichols startled a Las Vegas meeting of DWI defense attorneys with this announcement: He was walking away.

"There was a gasp in the room," he said.

His career shift would cost him. But, finally, Nichols could live with himself. Now 66 and reflecting on his years as a DWI legal insider, he has ideas about how to lessen the toll of drunken driving.

For example, Nichols thinks making bars more liable and imposing a quarter-a-drink tax to pay for added treatment and enforcement are two ways to fight the chronic problem. "We need a paradigm shift, not more nibbling around the edges," he said, adding that enhanced penalties "makes everyone feel better, but aren't really fruitful."

No 'moral giant,' just tired

One case, Nichols remembers, pushed him to quit cold turkey. He was defending a drunken woman who had backed her car into someone's apartment; he negotiated the charge down to careless driving. "She was unhappy with the result," Nichols said. "It was just the tipping point that made me say: That's all - I've had enough."

He squirreled away $300,000 to cover the years it took to rebuild his reputation and he's now a successful workplace lawyer, handling class-action employee lawsuits.

"You like to feel you've accomplished something, that somebody's life is better at the end of the day because of what you did," Nichols said. "People thought I had found God or was some kind of moral giant, but it was none of that. I just realized I had one life to live and I was really tired of the grind and the hopelessness."

The son of a cop from rural Florida, Nichols came to Minnesota for a short stint at a Bible college and, by the mid-1960s, was stationed in Vietnam as an electronics technician in the Navy. He'd always wanted to be an engineer, and once he became a lawyer, he became expert at finding flaws in the primitive breath-testing equipment.

"Few understood how the machinery worked," he said. "As I became good at the science end, people were sending me DWI cases left and right."

Nichols would tell jurors that he named his son after his badge-wearing father. But he'd also tell them that some cops exaggerated and misread testing equipment, on which officers could dial up any reading and which was susceptible to radio interference.

In 1992, Nichols won a landmark state appeals case, which required those arrested for DWI to be able to talk - in private - with attorneys after years of police eavesdropping in booking rooms.

"There were lots of firsts; it was a creative time that was fun and interesting," he said.

As the cases piled up, though, he'd see the same unappreciative clients returning, making the same bad judgments. The work became less challenging, less satisfying.

"I worked pretty hard, but I knew the stuff so it became almost a part-time job," he said. "The only way I could get out was to quit completely."

He even sold the rights to his five-volume legal treatise on DWI defense.

"He taught us so much and kept us on our toes because he did his job well and always showed respect for victims," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, a veteran DWI victims' advocate.

"He was one of the nation's premier DWI defense attorneys for a long period of time and then he was gone," said Steve Simon, a University of Minnesota law professor and chairman of the state's DWI task force, who was Nichols' law school classmate in the early-1970s. "At one reunion, someone said I was trying to build fences around DWI offenders while Nichols was trying to find gates in the fences."

Beer, water same cost?

Nichols thinks the drop in alcohol-related crash deaths, from 305 to 163 in Minnesota the past 25 years, has as much to do with safer cars, better air bags and improved highways as with smarter decision-making.

Bars and restaurants can be sued if their servers knowingly provide alcohol to an "obviously intoxicated" patron. They purchase so-called dram-shop insurance to protect themselves from suits.

Nichols would like to see the law amended, so if drivers over the legal 0.08 limit crash, and the victim can prove who supplied them with their last drinks, the bar would be liable. Dram-shop insurance rates would skyrocket and drinkers would be cut off more frequently.

"The argument they use is: 'How can we know?'" Nichols said. "But if you serve two people three bottles of wine, are you really challenged to see they are intoxicated?"

Adding a stiff per-drink tax would also help the alcohol industry pay for the social costs it rakes up along with its sales.

"I don't think a beer should cost anything remotely close to a bottle of water because the cost of one is significantly different to society," he said.

He points to the business model of most bars and restaurants, which give away free food at happy hour to lure people with addictive behaviors, knowing they'll more than offset the food costs with a hefty bar tab around closing time. TV ads that show how "sexy, fun and cool" their alcohol products are, before adding the disingenuous "drink responsibly" advice, really irk Nichols.

But he is as realistic as he is idealistic. He watched California's attempt to dedicate proceeds from an alcohol tax to pay for added enforcement run into $30 million of alcohol industry lobbying.

"Taxing drinks a quarter or rewriting the dram-shop laws doesn't have a lick of a chance," he said. "The alcohol industry is just too powerful."

That's why he's glad he walked away. It took more than a decade to remake his reputation, and he still gets DWI referrals. But just before Christmas, Nichols said, he was able to win a large class of clients $14 million from an employment lawsuit settlement.

"That," he said, "felt good."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767