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Stefan Cross Law LLB 1982

Stefan Cross's Photo

Stefan Cross QC (LLB (Law), 1982) is recognised as one of the UK’s leading employment lawyers; his pioneering equal pay litigation has changed the legal landscape. He has secured compensation for thousands of women in local authorities across Britain who had been paid less than men in equivalent roles, first on behalf of trade unions and later establishing the first practice to take employment cases on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis.

In 2013 he was appointed as an Honorary Queen’s Counsel (QC) in recognition of his contribution to pay equality, one of only a small number of solicitors to be awarded this venerable distinction. A committed supporter of the University, he is currently funding gender discrimination law activity at Southampton.

The highlight has to be getting appointed as an Honorary QC. Only about 20 solicitors have ever been given that honour. It was awarded to me for the work we did pursuing equal pay cases, and that’s the work I’m most proud of.

Why did you choose to study at the University of Southampton?

I was the first person in my family to go to university – or indeed, to get any O levels. At one point my father didn’t want me to do A levels because he couldn’t afford it. Luckily the council was able to give him a grant so that I could continue my studies.

Given my family background, I honestly just wanted to go 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.

What do you remember about student life here?

I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, which meant no mixing with the wider community, so coming to the University was a big culture shock. But it was the first time I was free – of the religion, of home. It was like having my wings unstrapped.

I took on as many roles as I could. I was the president of Connaught Hall, which was how I met my wife – I showed her to her room on her first day at Southampton. I even ran as an independent candidate for Students’ Union president. That was a silly idea! Although I think my maverick streak – standing up for what I believe in, often to my own detriment – has stayed with me.

I also used to go all the time to the Gaumont Theatre (now the Mayflower), where I saw some amazing bands, such as The Who and Deep Purple.

At what stage of your degree did you begin to make choices about your future career?

I took Discrimination and Litigation in the third year; it was the only subject in 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, which was one of the biggest firms dealing with this kind of litigation. That was my first real career decision.

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 20 solicitors have ever been given that honour. It was awarded to me for the work we did pursuing equal pay cases, and that’s the work I’m most proud of.

I won the first disability discrimination case for someone with HIV and have had over 50 reported equal pay cases. It is very unusual, unless you are a barrister, to get more than two or three reported cases.

The Cleveland ‘dinner ladies’ case [a 1995 landmark gender pay equality case in which Stefan successfully represented a group of dinner ladies who worked for Cleveland County Council] marked a sea change in equal pay legislation. It resulted in a £6m payout for women who had been underpaid for years and started a process that completely changed the culture and forced the trade unions to recognise their responsibilities to their members.

What has been the impact of your battle for equal pay?

To put some numbers to it, over 250,000 women have won cases and more than £2bn has been paid in compensation.

It’s the 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. It goes far beyond the claimants themselves – it has a knock-on effect on their dependants, their children, their relatives. It makes a difference.

Did you have a specific ambition when you graduated 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 following year, when I passed the solicitors’ finals exams with honours – which was quite unusual at the time – that I started to believe in myself. For the first time I felt I was among peers. Then for the first 10 to 12 years of my career, working with the trade unions was what I wanted to do. I was fulfilling my ambition. I took their caseload from 50 to 200 cases a year.

It was the Cleveland case that really changed my thinking. It changed collective bargaining for all local governments. There was a conspiracy of silence that the trade unions were in on. I felt it was an injustice, and I saw the opportunity. I left the trade union law firm to set up the UK’s first ‘no win, no fee’ employment practice.

What were the challenges of going it alone?

At first it was very difficult – just me and my computer in a tiny box room. It was hard, a huge challenge, and for the first year I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. Then the local newspaper decided to write a story about me, and that really kicked off our success. We were taking 20,000 cases within two years.

There were still difficult times. We sued the trade unions to try to highlight their 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 – and I actually lost money on that case. But in the end, it forced them to recognise their responsibility and take on hundreds of thousands of cases that had been overlooked.

You have been very generous in supporting the University over the years. What inspires you to support us in this way?

I support the University for two reasons. 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. I will be forever grateful.

Secondly, I wanted to get discrimination law back on the agenda, having discovered that it was no longer taught on the law course. This was the subject that shaped my career but it seems to have almost ceased to exist in academia. I think people see the progress that has been made and don’t realise there’s still so much more to do. If academia can achieve that it can only be a good thing.

Your daughter Anna recently graduated with an excellent degree from Southampton. Was she following in your footsteps?

Yes, Anna got a first and trumped her dad! She keeps reminding me of that. I don’t think she made 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 policy and philosophy.

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 we went to. The staff were so accommodating to parents, and they made Anna feel like she was really wanted.

I have two very competitive daughters, and they both said that they would never be lawyers or doctors like their parents. Funnily enough they have both changed their minds; Anna is training in law and Rachel is doing medicine.

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 are committed 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. 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!

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