What made you choose to study at the University of Southampton?
I was the first person in my family to go to University. In fact, I was the first person to get any O-levels. My father, at one point, didn’t want me to do A-levels because he couldn’t afford for me not to go out to work. Luckily the council was able to give him a grant so that I could continue my studies. I suppose this was an early incarnation of the Educational Maintenance Allowance.
Given my family background I honestly just wanted to get to a good university. I knew Oxbridge wasn’t an option but I wanted to go for a red brick, and Southampton was willing to take a chance on me, even though I was worried that I might fail my Maths A-level and end up with only 2 ‘B’ grades.
What was Southampton like as a place to study?
I was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, in a community where I did not mix with different types of people and did no extra-curricular activities at all. Our house was repossessed during my O-levels and I ended up living with a family I didn’t know for that year, then we were relocated to a council estate in Bournemouth.
Coming to the University was such a culture shock. I had never met anyone who had gone to public school. I didn’t know what public school was! I remember one of the first questions I was asked in Freshers’ Week was “what school did you go to?” That was so strange to me.
But this was the first time I felt free. It was like having my wings unstrapped.
At what point in the course did you start to see the way to your future career?
I took “Discrimination” and “Evidence and Procedure” in third year; they were the only subjects for which I got a First. In fact, I was top of the year for Discrimination Law.
At the time I thought that I wanted to be a Family Lawyer, but then I became politically active and got involved in the Trade Unions and the Labour Party on campus, and I began to realise that this was what I cared about. I decided to become a Union lawyer, and joined Brian Thompson & Partners, who were one of the biggest firms dealing with this kind of litigation. That was my first real career decision.
You mention the Labour Party and the Trade Unions, what else did you get involved in that shaped your time at the University?
I took on as many roles as I could while I was at the University. I even ran as an independent candidate for Union President. That was a silly idea! I think my maverick streak – standing up for what I believe in, often when detrimental to myself – has stayed with me, but that was very naive. I just didn’t understand the machine-like nature of politics.
I was also the president of Connaught Halls, which was how I met my wife Alison, on her first day of University. I showed her to her room. She was in the new block, which was somehow even smaller than the old quad – at least I had a sink!
I also used to go all the time to the Gaumont Theatre [ed. now the Mayflower]. I saw some amazing bands there including The Who and Deep Purple.
Since university you have gone on to become an incredibly successful solicitor. What have been the highlights of your career to date?
The highlight has to be getting appointed as an Honorary QC. Only about twenty solicitors have ever been given that honour, but it was awarded to me for the work we did pursuing equal pay cases, and it’s that work that I am most proud of.
I won the first disability discrimination case for someone with HIV and have had over fifty reported equal pay cases. A reported case is one which is published because of its significance. It is very unusual, unless you are a barrister, to get more than two or three reported cases.
I left the Trade Unions’ law firm to set up the UK’s first “no win, no fee” employment practice. It was hard, a huge challenge, and for the first year I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.
Whilst at the Trade Unions’ firm I started The Cleveland ‘dinner ladies’ case which marked a sea-change in equal pay legislation. That resulted in a £6m pay-out for women who had been underpaid for years.
Unfortunately despite the fact that this case applied to tens of thousands of women, the unions refused to use the law to pursue this issue and I knew that if I wanted to do something about it I would have to go it alone. The cases we started in the North East began a process that completely changed the culture and forced the Trade Unions to recognise their responsibilities to their members.
To put some numbers to it, over 250,000 women have won cases, and more than £2bn has been paid in compensation to low-paid public sector workers.
It’s the impact stories from claimants that are really inspiring. Some make you laugh, many make you cry. It can be really life-changing. I have heard from women who have spent their entire lives in debt and are now able to live comfortably; one man who had become so poor that he had been begging food from his family was awarded a £27,000 pay-out – it was the most money he’d ever had.
It goes far beyond the claimants themselves. It has a knock on effect on the dependents, the children, the relatives. It makes a difference.
When you graduated what was your ambition and do you feel you've achieved it?
Yes and no. I didn’t really have a particular ambition when I graduated: I was just looking for a job. I was the first professional in the family. Getting the degree was the achievement.
It wasn’t until the year after, when I did the solicitors’ finals exams, and I got Honours – which was quite unusual at the time – that I started believing in myself. For the first time I felt I was amongst peers.
Then for the first 10-12 years of my career, working with the Trade Unions was what I wanted to do. I was fulfilling my ambition. I took my firm’s employment law caseload from 20 up to 500 cases a year.
It was the Cleveland case that really changed my thinking. It changed collective bargaining for all local governments. I felt there was a conspiracy of silence that the Trade Unions were in on. I felt it was an injustice, and I saw the opportunity.
The first year establishing my own firm was difficult; it was just me and my computer in a tiny box room. Then the local newspaper decided to write a story about me, and that really kicked off our success. We had 20,00 cases within 2 years and 20000 cases within 5 years.
There were still difficult times. We sued the Trade Unions to try to highlight that they had a responsibility to their members over equal pay. It was tough. It broke down the relationship with the Trade Unions – they wouldn’t even sit in the same room as me. But in the end, it forced them to recognise their responsibility and take on hundreds of thousands of cases that had been overlooked.
Your daughter Anna recently graduated with an excellent degree from Southampton – you must be very proud. What made her choose the University? Was she following in your footsteps?
Yes, she got a First, and trumped her dad! She keeps reminding me of that. She is one bright cookie.
It wasn’t a conscious choice to come to the same university as her parents. If anything it was the opposite! The course was what attracted her to Southampton. She really wanted to do Politics and Philosophy, and I got a phone call one day saying “Dad, would you mind if I applied to Southampton?”
The open day was the first time I’d been back to campus and I was so impressed. It was by far and away the best open day. The staff were so accommodating to parents, and they made her feel like she was really wanted.
I have two very competitive daughters, and they both said that they would never be a lawyer like me or a doctor like Alison. Funnily enough they have both changed their minds, and Anna is training in law and Rachael is doing medicine.
You have been very supportive of the University in recent years. What motivates this generosity?
Well, there are two reasons I give. The first is because Southampton changed my life. I would not be where I am today if the University hadn’t put its faith in me and I will be forever grateful for this.
Secondly, I came from a disadvantaged background and there are still lots of able kids from similar backgrounds who can find a home at Southampton and I wanted to help promote that possibility for them. The University and I are also exploring further opportunities in my area of Law.
What tips would you give to current students looking to start a career in your sector? What could they be doing now to make themselves more employable when they graduate?
There is one obvious answer: have a belief in something. Being committed to something is so important. The difficulty, of course, is knowing what you want to commit to at such a young age.
Try to know what you want. Try not to get fixated on “just getting a job”. Especially with law, everyone will be trying to get a job in a firm, any firm, to get a job. What will set you apart is your interest and involvement in things you care about.
Also, even though when I was studying I just wanted to get a 2:1 and be in employment, if I went back now, I’d be desperate for that First!