Robert C. Nickels gave up a comfortable career at Boeing to found a successful nonprofit law firm dedicated to representing children who needed an advocate in King County Juvenile Court. He did so at a time that he had six children of his own to support and without having practiced law before. The Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons (SCRAP), which Nickels started in a house he renovated, grew to become a major public defender agency representing thousands of clients a year. Nickels was an important influence on the juvenile court, where he pushed successfully for more services for juveniles and for alternatives to detention, and on the many lawyers he mentored, inspiring them to become passionate advocates for clients even when the cause was unpopular. Robert Nickels and his wife Kathie raised six children. Their oldest son, Greg, became a member of the King County Council and then Mayor of Seattle.
Illinois to Seattle
Robert C. Nickels was born on July 27, 1925, the son of Jacob Francis and Meta Sander Nickels. He and his older brother William, who went on to run the Replogle Globes company, grew up in Chicago, Illinois. R.C., as his family called him (colleagues would know him as Bob), attended St. Benedict's School and DePaul Academy. Graduating from high school during World War II, Nickels entered the Navy and served on the Destroyer Escort USS Meade in the South Pacific. When the war ended, Nickels continued his education, obtaining bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Illinois.
In 1953, a mutual friend introduced Nickels to Kathleen Anne McKenney, an obstetrical nurse at Cook County Hospital. Since the meeting took place at a bar/restaurant across the street from the hospital, Nickels liked to tell people that he met his future wife in a bar in the slums of Chicago. R. C. and Kathie Nickels were married in January 1954. Their first child, Greg, was born in Chicago in 1955. Three more children -- Mark, Peter, and the only daughter, Amy -- were born in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the family moved after Nickels went to work for Kaiser Aluminum. The final two -- Paul and Tom -- were born in Seattle.
Nickels was recruited by the Boeing Company after he was laid off by Kaiser Aluminum. He and his family moved to West Seattle in 1961. Several years later, they moved to Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, where they were active in St. Joseph Parish and where the children attended St. Joseph School. While working as a manager at Boeing, Nickels earned an M.B.A. degree at the University of Washington.
In the early 1970s, Nickels made a dramatic career change. He left Boeing, passed the Washington State Bar Exam, and began practicing law for the first time. He did not do this to make money. Rather, even with six children to support and educate, he decided he had to follow a passion for public service by representing young people in trouble who had no one else to advocate for them. In 1976, Nickels founded a private, nonprofit public defense law firm that he named the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons. He chose the impressive-sounding name in part for the acronym it formed. "SCRAP" both countered the assumption that the children the firm represented were scrap and indicated that the lawyers would scrap for their clients.
All of Nickels's children were influenced by his decision to take risks in pursuit of his beliefs. Following his father's death, Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955), who took after-school jobs to help pay his tuition while his father was starting his law practice, said "That was the big lesson to me. That was 'follow your dream'" (Chan).
Bob Nickels established SCRAP in a house that he renovated on Capitol Hill not far from the King County Juvenile Court. During the years that Nickels headed the firm, SCRAP attorneys practiced exclusively in Juvenile Court. They represented children charged with offenses and also represented children and parents in dependency cases involving allegations of child abuse or neglect.
Advocate for Kids
The work Nickels did at SCRAP had a significant impact on the juvenile court system. Rachel Levy, one of many attorneys that Nickels mentored and later a SCRAP board member, said:
"Bob was the very first advocate for kids' voices without being unreasonable or patronizing . . . The fact that most of his clients were street kids made no difference to him. It could be anybody's children" (Chan).
Nickels's advocacy for his juvenile clients influenced the lawyers who worked for him and many who came later:
"Lawyers that learned from Bob, and taught the next generation, had a real sense of focusing on the client, whether their cause was popular or unpopular. They were always ready to go to trial if that's what the client wanted" (Nacht interview).
Although advocating for what his juvenile clients wanted, even when it appeared not to be in their best interest, was fundamental for Nickels, equally important was working to get them help and services that they needed. In addition to lawyers, he hired a social worker to assist the children SCRAP represented. Nickels worked to educate juvenile court judges about services that could be ordered and alternatives to incarcerating children. Nickels's personality helped make him an influential force: "He was so well liked, and reasonable. People listened because they respected him" (Marshall interview).
Nickels's personality made a difference not just for SCRAP's clients but also for its employees. Bill Schipp, who worked for SCRAP as a social worker, said:
"His communication style was very friendly. I thought he was a wonderful person to work for. The atmosphere in the office was pleasant. Even though it was a difficult job he made it a fun place to work" (Schipp interview).
In part, the atmosphere at SCRAP reflected Nickels's wide range of interests. He enjoyed art, especially Northwest art, and frequently spent the lunch hour at the nearby Frye Art Museum or other museums. Colleagues recall him scrimping on lunch and riding the bus so that he could buy artwork. He also loved collecting and refinishing fine wood furniture and antiques.
Many of the pieces Nickels worked on went to the SCRAP offices (occasionally he would invite a colleague to select an antique and then refurbish it for the office), where even years after his retirement they leant a note of elegance not often found in similar public agencies. The artwork and antiques Nickels collected also graced his home and those of his children. After retiring, he bought boxes of broken clocks and restored a grandfather clock for each of his six children.
During the early 1980s, Nickels fought successful battles against both colon and liver cancer. He retired from SCRAP in 1987, but remained closely connected to the firm, where he was a much loved and inspirational figure. Over the years, SCRAP expanded from its juvenile court beginnings to also represent adult clients charged with felonies in superior court and with misdemeanors in district courts throughout King County.
By the time of Nickels's death, the firm he founded had some 90 employees working out of offices in Seattle and Kent and representing some 13,000 juvenile and adult clients per year. (SCRAP closed as an independent law firm in 2013, after it and the three other private non-profit firms that provided public-defense services in King County were taken over by King County and became divisions within the county Department of Public Defense.)
In 1999, Nickels and his wife moved back to West Seattle, where they had lived when they first moved to Seattle in the 1960s. Nickels devoted much of his final years to caring for his wife. Robert Nickels died of complications from cancer on May 13, 2007, in his West Seattle home.