|Profiles in the Law|
The Law as a Lifesaver
By Melody Finnemore
Mark Irick remembers lying in a hospital bed, staring into the dark, night after night for months, wondering if he would ever be able to practice law again.
The Dallas attorney’s life changed forever on Oct. 20, 1999, when what looked like a harmless wave slammed him into the ocean floor and broke his neck while he bodysurfed in Cabo San Lucas. Irick and his wife, Sue, had been on vacation for one day when suddenly they found themselves back on an emergency flight to San Diego, with Irick paralyzed and close to death.
During two surgeries — one in San Diego and another in Portland — and four months of rehabilitation at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center, Irick questioned how he would return to his career or enjoy the hunting and fishing he had always loved. He wondered whether he even wanted to live.
'When you lay in a hospital bed for four months you think about a lot of things, and one of the things I thought about was whether I would be able to be a lawyer again,' he said.
Today, the 50-year-old partner at Shetterly Irick Shetterly & Ozias credits the law with saving his life. An appeals court victory on a sewage treatment case saved the city of Dallas millions of dollars and put Irick back on top.
'Coming back from my injury, I had my doubts about whether I could continue to practice law as successfully as I had in the past, and that case was just what I needed,' he said.
Irick’s comeback hasn’t been easy. His workday now begins at 11 a.m. because it takes longer to get ready in the mornings. He must work harder than ever now to pay off a mountain of medical bills. And he returned to his office to find that it wasn’t wheelchair accessible — and he couldn’t hold a pen or pick up a book, either.
The accessibility problem was quickly dealt with at the hands of Irick’s partner, state legislator Lane Shetterly, who recommended a ground-level office be added to the building that houses the firm. In September 2000, Irick began working in a fully accessible office that includes wider doorways and a custom-made desk with no drawers (to accommodate his wheelchair), a push-button door, remote-control window shades and a speakerphone. An article in the Bulletin led Irick to voice-activated computer software that is designed specifically for law firms.
'That was a tremendous lift to my spirits, because I knew there was more hope than ever before that I could return to the law.'
Irick credits the love and support of his wife, his partner, and other friends and family with helping him cope with the dramatic changes in his life.
'Lane was tremendously helpful. He came up to see me quite often, relayed messages to me from other people and did what he could to lift my spirits. He, like a lot of other people, was insistent — almost to the point of being pushy — about me getting back to work.'
His family and friends also encouraged him to return to the active life he has always enjoyed. Although he won’t run with the bulls in Pamplona like he did when he was 21, Irick takes six weeks of vacation a year to travel, fish and hunt. He recently bagged an 800-pound elk with a modified rifle.
However, the loss of independence has probably been one of the toughest adjustments. His wife does a great deal to help out, along with a professional caretaker.
'For me to have to depend on so many people is very difficult for me,' he said. 'I don’t know of many people who could make that adjustment, and I don’t know that I would have if it weren’t for the law.'
Irick, who graduated fourth in his class from Willamette University School of Law in 1979, continues to divide his time between serving as the city attorney for Dallas and Monmouth and helping private clients with land use issues. He worried at first that his clients would no longer trust him to handle their cases because of his physical limitations. Not a single client left.
Though his schedule is a bit more limited now, Irick quickly returned to his pro bono work and provides legal training for employees of CASA.
'I get as much from it as I give. If you are in the frame of mind of helping people, you get back as much as you give.'
The same sentiment that drew Irick to the law in the first place continues to hold true today.
'I entered the law because I felt it was an honorable profession and a way of helping people. I enjoy that because I live in a small town and I can wheel through town and see people I’ve helped,' he said. 'Since coming back, the ability to help other people helps me and my sense of worth. I am a paralyzed person, but I’m still able to help people and they still need me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer.
© 2003 Melody Finnemore