First person

Scott Atkins, Sydney
RE | Issue 13 | 2018


Partner Scott Atkins in conversation with Ingeborg Alexander in 2018


 I was born in 1970 in Beresfield, about half an hour from Newcastle. It’s a classic Australian small working-class suburb. But a nice place to grow up. The people were good.


It was famous (or prominent) for two things: it had the Newcastle crematorium and the Steggles chicken factory. Our house backed onto the bushland that the crematorium was attached to. As a child, I would walk to school every day through the crematorium. At four o’clock they’d have the burn-off; it used to be an oil incineration system, and you’d see the black smoke come up. In the end my mother and my father were both cremated there, so I have a very different association with the crematorium now.


Almost the entire community was made up of people that worked at the Newcastle steel mill or the Oak dairy factory in Hexham—where my father worked—or the Steggles chicken factory. Some days, I would finish school and we’d go to the supermarket and there’d be people who had finished their shift at the Steggles chicken factory and they’d still be in their tunics from the chicken factory with blood and gore all over their front.


My father and mother worked at this quite famous department store called David Jones. They met there quite young and then they married and moved to Beresfield.


My mother was a proponent of education. That came I think from her mother, whose name was Myrtle.


Myrtle (we called her Nana) had a significant impact on my life. By every measure she was very successful. She was the equivalent of the chief financial officer of this department store in Newcastle—very unusual for a woman in the 1950s and 60s. She was a disciplinarian, in a good sense. In the early 1950s, she became one of the first divorcees in Newcastle under the old Matrimonial Causes Act. She had to retain a private investigator to get evidence that her husband was cheating on her, otherwise she couldn’t get divorced. She maintained her career and raised her two daughters on her own. When she ultimately retired she became a volunteer at Meals on Wheels. I think about her a lot. She was a strong-willed woman.


When I look at our family and common threads, there’s a strong work ethic. If you’re in the Atkins family or derivatives of it, everyone expects a strong work ethic.


Growing up, I didn’t perceive our position as working class. But there is no doubt that my parents were classically working class. They were blue collar ultimately moving into white collar.


My father ultimately moved into a managerial position at the dairy factory and I thought that was a very significant role to have, so I was very proud of him. He was very committed to the local Scout group and ultimately became the Group leader. I remember him being awarded his twenty-five-year service badges and medals.


I  made a binary choice in high school. I was determined to get to university so I gave up Scouts. I had decided that anything that I needed to jettison to get to university was a sacrifice that I was prepared to make. I used to pump petrol to make money to get ready for university. And I worked at a pet shop. I knew that there was another world out there beyond my suburb and beyond my life experience and I was determined to chase it.


My mother could see what my aspirations were. My father, probably less so; he was very much of the view that you should be looking for a trade, a manual job.


My brother chose a different path. He left school when he was sixteen, so he didn’t complete his high school certificate.


We had an auntie who had this huge sprawling farm in Queensland. I was put on the bus and would travel thirteen hours to have a holiday on her farm. I usually came back with a baby joey or a baby wallaby. I would bring them up and then we would give them to the zoo—a little wildlife park called Blackbutt Reserve. You had to hand raise them with a mix of milk and charcoal, which has enzymes in it that suit their digestive tracts.


My childhood passion was to be a vet. I was obsessed with James Herriot the vet and All Creatures Great and Small. I was so determined to be a vet that I changed school—we had to get special permission to go to an out-of-region school. I used to ride my bike to the train station, catch the train a few stops, then get a bus to the school. And I would do that twice a day. I was thirteen. The school had a farm, it had tractors, it had the whole lot. It was a fully functioning agricultural enterprise.


At sixteen, it’s compulsory to spend time at a veterinary clinic. So I did that and discovered that I couldn’t handle the blood. I couldn’t handle surgery. Those two weeks were just like living the James Herriot books; there were hands up cows and all sorts of things. We were castrating stallions; we euthanized a donkey; we had to remove a ram’s horn. I never passed out but I came close to it.


That was the end of the veterinary science dream. I had planned for that particular outcome for eight years which, when you’re eighteen, is about half of your life, and I had to change course. And I was prepared to do that.


There were no lawyers in my family but I gravitated towards it. In Australia, it’s the norm to go to your local university but law was not on offer at Newcastle, so I had to leave home. I would never have been able to afford that, there was simply not enough money in the family—but I had a stroke of good fortune. On the last day of high school I was walking past a noticeboard and there was a sign about management development scholarships with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. I sent off the form and didn’t expect to hear anything more. Then I got a letter asking me to go to Sydney for an interview. My mum and dad came with me because it was a big deal: this was my first real encounter with the Big Smoke. The only other time I had been to Sydney was as a six-year-old to go to the zoo.


Everybody wants to go to Sydney if you don’t live in Sydney and you’re close to Sydney. And so I did. In 1989, I went to Macquarie University to study law and economics and I lived on campus in a residential college which I happen to now chair. The bank paid for me at the equivalent of a teller’s salary. It meant that I had a financial foundation—so I could be completely devoted to my studies. And I had that for five years.


The deal was that the payment would be met during the vacation. So each year when everyone else went off for their three-month vacation I worked in a different division of the bank. And I was happy to do it. For the first year I worked as a bank teller, back in Newcastle. That was the year we had an earthquake. That was apocalyptic being in a city that is the subject of an earthquake. It was 5.6 on the Richter scale. People died.


After I finished my studies the bank offered me a job in Sydney, and I stayed with them for seven years. I felt an obligation out of loyalty to repay the investment they’d made in me.


In 1994, I did the practical law training and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer—she died in 1995 shortly after I was admitted as a solicitor. She had been the major support throughout my life.


What that does—obviously it’s a very painful thing to go through—I think it hardens your resolve to be successful.


My wife and I were born in the same month in the same year in the same town. We met in kindergarten. By utter coincidence we both ended up at Macquarie, both studying law and economics, both living in Dunmore Lang College. When we discovered this, we tried quite consciously to remain separate from one another. We both wanted to have the lives that you dream of when you move to Sydney.


After two years we ended up together. We got married in 1996. I was twenty-six.


At our combined fortieth birthday party we used our 1975 class photo as the invitation; we discovered that we were actually standing next to each other in the class photo.


Studying law at Macquarie was quite challenging. I didn’t want to let anyone down having gotten to that point, so I spent most of my time studying. And I did aerobics. That was the big thing then.


I was never a sporty kid. I was much more interested in reading, raising my chickens and guinea pigs and birds. But now, my big thing is running. I outrun the young people in the office. That’s my thing. Running; and working out; and spin classes—it becomes quite addictive.


The whole week is consumed by working.


I’m a city-centric city-obsessed large metropolis person, that’s my orientation. I can’t get enough of big cities.


My family keeps me balanced; I’ve got three children: seventeen, fourteen and eleven. Mind you, they also create a lot of the stress.


My wife and I had resolved never to live more than five kilometres away from the city but once we had our kids we wanted them to get the best education and so we had to move closer to the best schools. They are full fee-paying schools; they’re very expensive. Both my wife and I went to state schools. In Sydney, there’s a strong bias for professionals to send their kids to private schools. The extravagance of some of these schools is difficult to justify as an educational offering; what it really is, is an experience.


Like a lot of Australian homes we’ve got a pool. So there’s the pool man as well as the gardener. And we have someone that cleans the house. The gardener does the stuff that I’ll never get to, hedges and things, but I do love spending three or four hours in the garden on the weekend.


We made the family decision to get a cat. Her name is Princess. Everyone loves the cat. Our other pet is a rabbit. The rabbit is Pebbles. Some of the family members would like a dog but we are having the family dog debate, because my wife’s not a fan of dogs.


My wife’s father is Russian. During WWII he fled with his siblings and his parents from Russia through Germany—they had to live life on the run until they were able to get to the ships that were taking people from Europe to Australia—and he ended up in Hunter Valley. They were essentially refugees. They turned up with nothing.


My brother established a very successful mechanical business and other businesses—he too has a very hard work ethic—and he now lives on a farm and has pursued cattle breeding. We don’t see each other all that much; he’s not in Sydney, I’m in Sydney. He does all the extreme things. He’s into speedboating, motorbike racing, four-wheel driving, camping, that whole existence—mine’s the absolute opposite.


I don’t think I was all that emotionally equipped to deal with the loss of a mother at twenty-four. I didn’t expect to lose her, in fact. I was in Sydney and my father rang—classic father communication, ‘Oh, your mother’s in hospital. I don’t think she’s all that well.’ And I said, ‘Well, should I come up or not?’ ‘Oh, let’s see how things are in the morning.’ Well, she didn’t make it to the morning. You’ve got to be very careful in those situations about judging people’s decisions, so I don’t judge the decisions, but, you know, I did not expect to get a call at three a.m. in the morning to say that she’d passed away, and I never got to say goodbye to her.


My father never remarried. And he then got sick from a form of leukaemia. At the time that happened, we had certainly had two kids, possibly were onto our third, we’d renovated our home, life was good, my career was burning along at a million miles an hour. And at that period when you think life is pretty good, then you get a call: ‘I think I might have something.’ That was about 2009. I was thirty-nine. I’d just landed a huge job at the firm. So I went from the high to the low very quickly. But he battled on, went into remission, so it was all good. But then he got sick a couple of years ago, and went downhill and died not long before his seventy-fifth birthday.


A lot of the reading has fallen away.  But I’m still passionate about books. I made a resolution to my wife two years ago when I did the annual reorganisation of the bookcase, when I was up the ladder, that I wouldn’t buy any books for a year; and I ended up buying thirty-two books that year. I am hopeless at not buying books.


I usually have six or seven going at one time which drives everyone in the house crazy, but I can flit between them. We’ve been having a big discussion about Lincoln in the Bardo. Do you love it or hate it? I was in Washington when he won the Booker Prize and I bought a copy; this was going to be my summer book. But my wife picked it up. She didn’t enjoy it. She’s abandoned it.


We’ve always bought the children books and read to them. Every time I’ve had an opportunity I would buy them books, and get in trouble for that as well.


My wife’s a Libra. She can never make a decision and I’m constantly making the decisions and then complaining that I always have to make the decisions. I’ve always felt like I’m a true Virgo—Virgos have perfectionistic tendencies; we probably don’t realise just how difficult we can be.


I’m a huge fan of jazz. And cooking. When I cook, which is usually Spanish food, I either have on jazz or opera. I like all types of jazz but I particularly like Ella Fitzgerald. Our middle daughter is called Ella. I love listening to music and I love listening to Ella.


My older daughter is making the decision about what career to pursue: she’s thinking of law. I’ve always encouraged her to be a doctor. I encouraged my middle daughter to be a doctor—and she wants to be a fashion designer in New York.


Every Sunday morning my son rides his bike around the Bay and I run behind him.


My wife’s name is Lara. 


If you talk about joy, I’ll talk to you about my wife and children.

Scott Atkins Global board member, Norton Rose Fulbright, Deputy chair–Australia, Norton Rose Fulbright, Head of risk advisory–Australia, Norton Rose Fulbright, Chair, Henry Davis York (2001–17), Fellow, INSOL International, Vice president, ARITA

First published in RE: issue 13 (2018) Interview by Ingeborg Alexander. Photograph by Robbie Pattemore