New Zealand Law Society - Jail waits for work and fun-mixing skier

Jail waits for work and fun-mixing skier

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Richard Upton
Richard Upton

Fancy escaping Auckland for 13 weeks of the year to work from Wanaka, put your kids into the local school and go skiing whenever you can?

That’s what Auckland barrister Richard Upton and architect wife Nikki have done for three years with children Indigo (10), Mahe (8) and Sage (6).

They are part of a growing number of mainly professionals from Auckland and elsewhere who are able to expand the more conventional work/life balance parameters.

Richard Mark (Richard) Upton
Entry to law
Graduated LLB and BA in English literature and geography from Victoria University in 1987. Admitted in 1998.
Barrister, in Auckland and Wanaka.
Speciality area
Employment law.

In the third school term, from July to early October, mad-keen skiers Richard and Nikki let out their Auckland home and rent a house in Wanaka through AirB&B.

“Nikki – who is a far better architect than I would ever be a lawyer – is also able to work part-time from home. This is the third year we have done it after hearing from other people who tried it,” says employment law specialist Richard.

“We take the children out of their Auckland school and enrol them here. In the past two years they have been integrated into the school proper but this year the school expected more people would be doing what we are doing so they have put them all in one class.

“There are now 20 kids from “away” so there is one specific class for the ‘one termers’. We laugh about it as an Auckland leper colony. The kids are all in the same class. Some think it is very good and some think it’s not. Son Mahe thinks it’s dreadful but it’s a system I would associate with a small rural school.

“We’re not sure we can do this next year because our eldest daughter, Indigo, will be starting intermediate and it would be unfair on her with chopping and changing schools at that level.”

Small sacrifices

As an employment law specialist Richard Upton works almost exclusively with big businesses with whom he has ongoing relationships.

“A barrister will usually step into a case then step out, whereas I am operating more like an employment law practice. I deal with my clients over the phone, by email, and giving advice, and when there is litigation it is planned out well in advance.

“I leave Wanaka about every fortnight. Recently I was in Christchurch on one week, Auckland the next and Hamilton the week after. It’s a small sacrifice for the benefits of living in Wanaka. I think there are so many people who would like to do this. And I’m all for that.”

Richard says children from Wanaka primary school, Arrowtown school and other schools in the area, go skiing on Thursday.

“They go up the mountain, usually Cardrona or Treble Cone. Their parents take them up, hand them over to a teacher who takes the roll, then the teacher hands the children to the instructors and they ski all day.

“What that means is the parents drive the kids and someone effectively babysits them for a day while parents also ski.

“Typically on a Thursday, because I am selling time, I get up at five o’clock and do three hours work, take the kids up the mountain, then ski, come off the mountain at four, get everyone home, do another three hours work and there’s your day.

“We all love skiing. There are things you can do when you are relegated to the sideline or being the chauffeur, but skiing you can do all together, which is a lot of fun.”

Two years ago Richard did some door-knocking and picked up the Treble Cone skifield – the largest skiing area in New Zealand - as a client.

“At various meetings I would go up to Treble Cone in the morning in my ski gear, sit there and talk to people then go skiing for four hours and come back, do a bit more work, then drive home again.”

The drive up and down the mountain is made easier with an Audi Q7 4x4 SUV, which Richard says is as good for cocker spaniel/poodle cross Pepper, with skis on the roof, for around town in Auckland as it is on the mountain. In Auckland, Richard also rides a 150cc Vespa Belladonna scooter.

“We have learned while being in Wanaka that Pepper – we’ve had her a year - is a perfect size to fit into some rabbit holes and get out again, which is important. She’s been having a blast down here.

“We’re probably the only people I know who actually take their SUV off the road and up the mountain. Sometimes we put it on a truck and have it transported between Auckland and Wanaka and sometimes we drive.”


But when he comes off the slopes in October he is heading for prison.

Richard recently volunteered to read to prisoners in association with the Howard League for Penal Reform and has his first reading with an inmate at the prison at Paremoremo when he gets back to Auckland.

“It will take me out of my comfort zone and I expect it will be really rewarding. It also ties in with my personal views on the importance of education and rehabilitation, rather than incarceration and zero tolerance.

“I like reading and fly fishing. And have just signed up to do an alpine run I’m not looking forward to at all, round Tongariro National Park. It’s called The Goat – 22 kilometres of descent and ascent on the first weekend in December. I’m kidding myself that I have plenty of time to train.

“I’ve been reading a book on Ferdinand Magellan and his circumnavigation of the world, which is a fascinating story. I pick up books and read them when I can, such as Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

“Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a great read. It’s a fictional book about a Scottish peasant in the 1860s who commits a triple murder and while incarcerated pleads guilty to the crime and writes about why he did it. It’s about his dealings with his lawyer, the trial and the class system in Scotland at that point. It has a nice overlay with legal and historical issues.

“We listen to things the kids make us listen to. And of late I’m liking American entertainer Chance the Rapper, Francis and the Lights, and English DJ Nightmares on Wax. I love The Eagles but I’m not allowed to listen to them because Nikki says they make her feel unwell.

“We have travelled all over New Zealand and try to make sure the kids don’t leave home till they’ve seen the country. Last Christmas we went to Vietnam with them which was fascinating and interesting.

“We wanted the kids to realise how fortunate we are in New Zealand. Most lawyers are reasonably well off and the lifestyle we are able to lead is something kids can fall into the trap of taking for granted. So Vietnam was an eye opener for them. We also had a week in the sun in Samoa before heading to Wanaka.

“I don’t see many movies and we watch boxsets on Netflix, like Californication or Orange is the New Black.”

Working with Dad

The son of prominent Queen’s Counsel John Upton, Richard – like his older sister and younger brother – was encouraged to do law but only he followed in his father’s footsteps.

“Dad is still practising in his mid-70s. Once he decided to do law there was no side-tracking him. Law has always been his passion. He told us law was such a good grounding even if you don’t practice it. I know so many people who, when they have left law school, have gone on to do far more interesting things than law.”

Richard is currently doing a case with his father that “is winding its way through the Employment Court” and is soon to go to the Court of Appeal for the second time. “I feel pretty proud appearing with him.”

“Dad’s father ran a garage in Hastings in the days when the garage did everything. Mum’s father was a farmer. She was brought up on a farm in Hawke’s Bay which has been in the family since 1882.

“Mum and Dad have retained an interest in that farm and we spend a lot of time there, which is what I describe as my turangawaewae. The kids can run around and chase sheep and cows.”

While he gained some publicity representing the owners of a Parnell café where former Prime Minister Sir John Key playfully pulled a waitress’s ponytail – sparking the so-called Ponytailgate Affair – Richard doesn’t regard it as a memorable case.

“It’s a cliché but one of the things I find interesting with employment law is that every day is different. Law itself can be very dull and very dry, but facts I find far more interesting.”


“When you think about employment law you think of what would people do to get fired, what can justify their dismissal? The list is obvious, violence, sex, drugs - all the things you shouldn’t be doing in the workplace.

“And the fact that I and many other employment lawyers have jobs shows people keep doing these things. People are constantly doing things in the workplace they shouldn’t be doing.

“The most obvious dinner guests for me, having young kids, would be to have my grandparents around. I would love for my grandparents to have had the opportunity to meet my kids - their great grandchildren. It would be very nice for everyone at the table.

“I hope we would serve something a bit more exotic than the rabbits Pepper catches. I will eat anything if it is well cooked. If the company is good and there is good red wine I’m happy as Larry. I would happily drink Central Otago pinot until it made me quite unwell. And I like a Hawke’s Bay chardonnay.

“There’s a good mid-range pinot called Rabbit Ranch, you can get it in the supermarket in Auckland on special for $21-$22, otherwise it’s $25. Here in Central Otago if you buy from local bottle store a few kilometres from where it is made, it’s $35.

“Social work or maybe medicine - which interests me more and more every year as I see my own body falling apart – might make alternative careers.

“Work is a small sacrifice for having fun.”

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