Former laywer is a rising star at Fox News Channel

She’s the TV newsie of the moment: Megyn Kelly, the comely Fox News Channel anchor who has grabbed the attention of the media punditocracy in recent weeks thanks to her rising profile on the top-rated news cabler.

In the past month, Kelly has been skewered by Jon Stewart, spoofed by Jay Leno and faintly praised by Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker for sparring with Bill O’Reilly on his show and her own.

She dared to defend President Obama during a recent guest shot on Don Imus’ radio show (simulcast on Fox Business Network), and she flatly asserted to O’Reilly that Goodwin Liu, the liberal UC Berkeley professor nommed for the federal appeals court, had “unassailable” credentials for the job.

Kelly is clearly getting a big push from Fox News as a next-generation star in the Shepard Smith mold — an anchor with news cred who is less encumbered by the partisan tilt of other Fox News personalities. She can be breathless and intense at times, but her background as a corporate lawyer adds a level of gravitas to her questioning and reasoning.

“She’s hard and tough and enthusiastic, but also pleasant,” says Michael Clemente, Fox News’ senior veep for news. “Some people have some of those characteristics, but not many people have them all in a way that comes across on TV.”

The whirlwind of activity is coming for Kelly barely six months after she gave birth to her first child, a son, and about three months after she landed her first solo anchor slot. She took on the 1-3 p.m. ET weekday news block, dubbed “America Live,” on Feb. 1, just a few weeks after she returned from maternity leave. And she’s been a regular contributor to “The O’Reilly Factor” on legal issues — including a regular Thursday segment dubbed the Kelly File — for the past few years.

Arguing comes naturally to Kelly, who spent nine years as a litigator for the white-shoe law firm Jones Day before she decided to pursue TV. She grew up in upstate New York and went to Syracuse U. with every intention of pursuing broadcast journalism. But she got “sidetracked by the law thing,” as she describes it, because of her interest in analyzing issues and weighing questions of right and wrong.

After earning her J.D. at Albany Law School, Kelly rose quickly at Jones Day. She became known for her skill at presenting compelling narratives in support of her cases in the courtroom. It’s not that far removed from what she does now, in her view.

“You’re taking a huge amount of information and condensing it. You’re telling a story,” she says. “For lawyers, it’s all about being comfortable in front of people and comfortable interviewing people. A lot of what you need to do in the legal profession I’ve brought with me in my TV career.”

Although she was successful as a lawyer, after nearly a decade, Kelly realized she was unfulfilled. And more importantly, she wasn’t having much fun working nearly nonstop researching and writing briefs and preparing for arguments. The “collective grind” of the job wore her down.

“I spent my 20s at the office,” she says. “When I turned 30, I asked myself, ‘Is this how I want to spend the next decade?’ One of the lessons I learned was that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it makes you happy.”

Some friends who worked in television helped her prepare an audition reel as a reporter. She boldly sent it to Bill Lord, then-news director (now general manager) of Washington, D.C.’s ABC affiliate WJLA-TV, who hired her on a freelance basis even as she continued to work as a lawyer to pay the bills. After a few months of on-the-air training, she was made a full-time correspondent in the summer of 2004. Two months later, she was scooped up by Fox News.

Kelly’s solo anchor gig and the timing of “America Live” present a few challenges. By 1 p.m. ET, most Fox News viewers have already heard the major headlines of the morning, so the pressure is on to deliver insightful analysis, interviews and reaction. Producers are always armed with human interest pieces that are a staple of daytime news. But Kelly’s best day is when she hears the sound of “rolling thunder,” or a big news story that breaks during her time period.

“Those times when there’s no script and you just have to go with it — I love the adrenaline flow on days like that. It compares to nothing,” she says.

As demonstrated on air, Kelly has a healthy sense of humor about herself and her network’s detractors. She was quick to show the clip on air of the “The Tonight Show” spoof that involved a lookalike Kelly getting clobbered by Naomi Campbell, which played on a recent segment by Kelley that featured the supermodel’s long history of legal problems.

Last month, “The Daily Show” twice took Kelly to task for what Stewart viewed as an extreme bias against Obama’s health care reform bill in her reporting on the fierce debate. (It was hard to find many supporters of the legislation in a review of guests on “America Live” in the weeks leading up to the vote). Stewart even chided her for having rap star Kid Rock on as an example of an “Everyman” who was against the reform bill.

Kelly stayed mum about Stewart on “America Live,” but in an interview this month with news website Mediaite, she admitted to being “flattered” by the attention from Stewart, and noted that her ratings went up after both of his segments.

On the flipside, in an April 6 blog post, Entertainment Weekly’s Tucker gave Kelly credit for her determination to “not give an inch” to O’Reilly in defending the First Amendment issues at stake in the case involving demonstrators who gathered outside the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006.

“You are wrong, Bill,” she told O’Reilly on April 2 as she schooled him on the legal protocol of an appellate court ruling in the case. “You’re talking from your heart and not from your head.”

As her star rises on and off Fox News’ air, Kelly says her focus is firmly on making “America Live” as strong as it can be for her viewers — “Right now the economy is No. 1 on people’s minds. And what’s going to happen with the 2010 midterms” — and making time for her infant son.

“It’s been a fun ride so far,” Kelly says. “I’m very tired at the end of the day. I have a newfound respect for working mothers.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more