|Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2008|
Margaret Weddell was an "earnest, nerdy child" who, in the early ’60s, learned that she could make a difference in the community. Her drive to work for social change hasn’t wavered in the decades since then, whether it’s through her work as a workers’ compensation attorney or as a volunteer striving to make the world a better place one bicycle at a time.
Born in 1951, Weddell grew up in Chicago and enjoyed a full cultural life that included going to museums every Sunday after Mass with her parents. When Weddell took part in an early learning enrichment program for young children as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, she realized her experience wasn’t shared by everyone.
"This early learning enrichment program was so great for these kids who just didn’t have some of the cultural opportunities we had, and they were making tremendous differences because they were going to be able to start school on a more level playing field," she recalls. "I came away being very grateful for the kind of cultural benefits I had, and I saw gifts that I didn’t realize I could give to other people."
Weddell considered becoming a nun.
"I think it’s fair to say I was always an intensely spiritual kid," she says. "Probably the biggest influence was working with President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and I got to meet these nuns who were incredibly strong, spiritual women working for social change. That was very inspiring."
Weddell chose a different path, however, and studied journalism at the University of Kansas. She then married and transferred to the University of Missouri, where she became interested in that school’s rehabilitation program. The five-year program focused on teaching independent living skills to people with disabilities, and included a range of topics from nursing to nutrition to sewing clothes specifically for disabled people.
"It was a degree that had a lot of implications for daily life as well as a career, and I really enjoyed that," says Weddell, the first college graduate in her family.
Weddell and her former husband moved to Oregon in 1977 and she joined the state Children’s Services Division (CSD) through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). "I was really lucky… I got to work with a lot of families who were able to stay together, but they needed some help in developing some basic life skills and finding social resources that could help them," she says.
After about a year at CSD, CETA funding ran out for Weddell’s position. She opted for a career change that would provide more income for her and her two children, Stephenie Sullivan, now 32 and a Portland firefighter, and Jacob Sullivan, a 35-year-old engineer. Weddell went to work for an insurance company, where for 12 years she handled claims.
"That’s where I became very interested in workplace health," she says.
During that time, she earned her Property-Casualty Claims Law Certification from the Insurance Institute of America. The three-year program involved a series of courses on legal principles that impact claim management, such as insurance law, subrogation issues, and various types of policies and coverage litigation.
This legal perspective intrigued Weddell and, at 38, she began taking evening law courses at Lewis & Clark College while working full time during the day. Weddell received her law degree in 1993 and built her experience at Portland firms Pozzi Wilson and Susak, Dean & Powell before working as a sole practitioner and of counsel for Larry Sokol of Sokol & Anuta.
At the time, there were six women in Portland specializing in workers’ compensation law. The group, which called itself Women in Comp, met frequently to discuss noteworthy cases or the problems they encountered developing their own cases. "None of the women who were part of that group are practicing workers’ comp now. Today there are fewer claimants’ lawyers, but there are actually more women," she says.
In 1998, Weddell joined Swanson Thomas & Coon, which recruited her for her expertise in representing claimants. Weddell appreciated the chance to work with Doug Swanson, who was killed in October 2004.
"Doug called me and asked me to join the firm. He was a wonderful person to work with and I felt very fortunate to have been asked to work there," she says.
The state also recruited Weddell, first under former Gov. John Kitzhaber. Politics drove the withdrawal of her appointment to the Worker’s Compensation Board then, and when she was asked for a second time last year she jumped at the opportunity. Weddell was sworn in on Feb. 29.
"I think I was interested because it does kind of round out my career. I’ve seen it from the side of the insurers, I’ve represented workers in the system, I’ve been a fact finder for administrative judges and now I’m a board member overseeing the health of this public agency," she says. "It’s very interesting to look at this from a larger view."
Through her various roles she has seen the dramatic changes that have occurred within workers’ comp law. Weddell attributes much of it to the state Legislature’s frequent tinkering with the law:
"I don’t think the Legislature has met since 1989 or ’90 where they haven’t made (sometimes) very significant changes, so it has been an intellectual challenge to keep up with that. Not only have they changed compensability standards, making it more difficult for a claimant to prove their case, but they’ve made changes regarding what the board expects out of the litigants.
The complexity involved in practicing workers’ comp law may explain why there are fewer attorneys specializing in it today, Weddell notes.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done for injured workers, but there’s no way for a claimant’s attorney to receive a fee. People need help but you can’t take a fee, even if they want to pay you, because there’s no assessed fee. A lot of those things have come together, I think, to discourage people from practicing workers’ comp law," she says.
The Workers’ Compensation Board will examine the
issue of attorney fees, and Weddell says she hopes it will help strengthen
the practice. "A healthy claimants’ bar is important for
the entire state of Oregon. Everybody benefits when injured workers
are well represented,"
Along with striving for change through her work, Weddell looks for ways to help by volunteering her time and expertise in a range of areas. She has chaired the executive committee of the OSB Workers’ Compensation Section and served as chair of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association’s Education Committee.
She also chairs the Community Cycling Center’s board and has been a volunteer for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance since 2002. "They have different purposes…but the volunteers and staff at both organizations remind me that I want to make the world a better place," Weddell says.
An avid cyclist herself, Weddell has participated in Cycle Oregon several times and enjoys multi-day rides that often span 500 miles or more. Her favorites include rides with friends from Portland to Eugene and Portland to Astoria that were followed by train trips back home.
A longtime proponent of cycling to work, Weddell has carried that enthusiasm to her job in Salem, encouraging many of her co-workers not only to bike to work but also join her in longer excursions. She hopes this summer to ride from her Southeast Portland home to work and back again — with an overnight stay in Salem — at least once a month.
While the bike excursions dominate Weddell’s spare time, she ran 13 marathons in three years before focusing on cycling. The most beautiful marathon of them all stretched along the Yakima River Canyon.
"It takes a lot of time to stay in shape for marathons and I just became more interested in these longer, multi-day bike rides. For me they are incredibly rejuvenating," she says, noting she once rode 600 miles over five days. "I come back physically exhausted but completely mentally rejuvenated, and I think that’s very important for legal professionals to do that."
The rigors of the road help maintain her stamina in the legal world and provide perspective about why she’s there in the first place. "Right now I’m just trying to do a good enough job to get reappointed in four years," Weddell says. "I’ve been really lucky — I’ve always enjoyed my work."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2008 Melody Finnemore