Joanna Cheffins

A graduate of the University and Joint Head of the Legal Services Office, Jo practised law in the UK and Canada before establishing the University’s first ever in-house legal service with job-share partner Helen Jackson.

I very much agree with the notion that ‘success’ has a million definitions.

When I first started out in law, I saw success as becoming a partner in a large law firm. Since then I have come to understand that relatively small deviations from Plan A can lead to opportunities that bring with them fulfilment in all sorts of different forms. My rather contorted career path has led me to a job that I find hugely stimulating and rewarding but would never have envisaged when I set out. Sharing that job with Helen has meant that balancing work and family life, although challenging at times, is actually possible.

Having qualified as a solicitor in England, I married a Canadian academic at a point in our lives when his career was more settled than mine. It was clear that if one of us was going to move, it was going to be me. At first I found it hard to settle in Canada, rather resenting having to requalify as a lawyer there and having to start my career all over again. But it didn’t take long, once I’d cleared that hurdle, to start to enjoy myself. I was working in a completely different legal environment but it was a chance to look at things afresh and try something new. It was a very good lesson in understanding that change can bring opportunities that ought to be grasped.

As a result, I was much more open to the prospect of taking up an administrative role at the University when we returned to England. Shortly afterwards I became the head of the University’s first in-house group of lawyers. I first met Helen when she came in as my maternity cover. As I’d hoped, Helen was interested in carrying on when I returned. Our boss suggested we share the job so we gave it a go. That was over ten years ago. Since then, the Legal Services Office has gone from strength to strength. We have a great team of really committed lawyers, handling a huge variety of legal issues on behalf of the University – everything from licensing the television rights to research on meerkats to assisting with a £350 million public bond issue.

Our job share works well for lots of reasons. Whilst we each have different skills, we both have a fairly pragmatic attitude to the job. We try to concentrate on how best to resolve a situation, rather than just giving pure legal advice. In terms of the added value to the University, I think we give a more complete answer to a problem by thinking through how the other one might approach it. We communicate well and put a lot of effort into coming across as seamless. On top of that we have a lot of fun together. For me, it’s essential to work with people you respect, trust and enjoy being with.


“In this environment it’s very easy to measure women’s success by what label they have on them.”

My first reaction to being nominated for this project was great amusement, and then I was really pleased. In this environment it’s very easy to measure women’s success by what label they have on them. Does she have a PhD? Is she a professor? The University is rightly famous for the outstanding quality of its academics but an effective administration to support them is essential, so I was really pleased to see that acknowledged. We all add value to the organisation in our own way.

If I were trying to sell the advantages of my current position to an earlier self, I’d say that our job-share arrangement has allowed me to carry out a very fulfilling senior role whilst being far more involved with my family than if I were trying to go it alone. I would probably tell my twenty-five-year-old self not to be afraid to make changes that don’t obviously fit with your preconceived ideas of success; those changes can bring their own opportunities if you let them. And women shouldn’t feel that they haven’t succeeded if they are aiming for a life that has a bit of everything in it.


Helen Jackson

A Cambridge graduate, Helen has job-shared as Joint Head of the University’s Legal Services Office for over ten years. Her experience as a solicitor includes work in the City and with a multinational electronics company.

I was brought up in Belfast, which is a wonderful place in many ways. However, the Troubles started when I was eight, and by eighteen I was absolutely ready to experience life somewhere else. Coming to Cambridge to study law presented an ideal opportunity to broaden my horizons.

That led to training as a solicitor in London, after which I hoped to join a nice middle-ranking firm suitable for a girl from Northern Ireland who’d scraped into Cambridge. My husband pushed me to set my sights higher. His attitude was, why not apply for the best possible jobs and see what happens? I very uncertainly approached a top City firm which was then quite small and full of very sparky people, and was astonished to be offered a job.

The nineties saw me returning to Cambridge, commuting to my job in the City – I was doing well but acutely conscious that I could see no way of combining that role with the sort of family life I wanted. The recession meant no law firms were recruiting; I took a risk and accepted the only job going, as an in-house lawyer in an electronics company. It was an enjoyable but extraordinarily male environment at that time; I really did find that the best way to get my point across sometimes was to prime a male colleague to repeat it five minutes later. But the main thing for me was to get my point across. Over nine years there I came to love the strategic involvement of being in-house.

After a brief career break, I took another risk covering Jo’s role as Head of Legal Services. I loved it but found it too big a commitment at that stage. I knew that when Jo came back, the options were job sharing or nothing for me. I’d only met Jo twice but she persuaded me that it would be fine, and could even be fun, which fortunately turned out to be true!

Job sharing, if it works and your employer is open to it, can offer a (more than) full-time solution for a role, with the not-inconsiderable bonus of the breadth of skills and experience that two people bring. There’s a lot to commend it. In our role, what’s most important to me is not just providing an effective legal service but also that you see tangible improvements in the institution. And it’s not just about the keynote things that people notice, it’s about the small things that over time make a bigger cultural difference.

“Job sharing, if it works and your employer is open to it, can offer a (more than) full-time solution for a role”

In terms of ‘what does success look like’, for me, the primary objective was to bring up my children. I wanted to be around to offer them a stable and loving home where they could grow into the remarkable individuals I now know them to be. A successful career that compromised that would not have represented success for me. The last decade has been hard work on all fronts, with a workstation in the kitchen and many late nights over my email. At the time I felt I was just about ‘getting away with it’, but actually I look at my children who are, I hope, happy, kind and competent members of society, and at the regard with which our legal team is held, the fact that Jo and I are upright, still the best of friends and still married to the same husbands, and feel we have achieved more than we could ever have expected.

To my twenty-five-year-old self I would say that I have never adhered to any career plan I ever attempted to make, I followed my nose and worked very hard to do the best job I could on all fronts. The real surprise is that, at fifty-two, not only am I doing a job which I find really satisfying, but I still feel there is plenty of career to be had, and everything to play for!