Doreen Chen

BEcSocSci (Hons) 2005; LLB (Hons) 2007


Doreen Chen is an international lawyer specialising in human rights and rule of law. She currently manages a rule of law project in Cambodia which is producing a criminal procedure law handbook for Cambodian legal practitioners, annotated to the jurisprudence of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and other human rights courts around the world.

She is also a senior consultant and inaugural board chairman at Destination Justice, a human rights and rule of law consultancy she co-founded with close colleagues in the field. The organisation aims to strengthen human rights and the rule of law through quality advice, research and training and work on matters worldwide.

What made you decide to study law, and why did you choose Sydney Law School?

I was raised to value social justice and a commitment to the community above all. As such, I always considered law, combined with studies in social science, a natural fit. I chose the University of Sydney for its strong reputation in the humanities, and particularly in the fields I studied (government and law).

Where has the study of law taken you in your career and/or life in general?

Law has led me to incredible roles and fascinating places. Prior to my current roles, I worked for the prosecution at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, where I analysed evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity. Before this, I lived in New York, completing my LLM at Columbia Law School in international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law. There, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my University of Sydney education and professional experience in Australia enabled me to excel in a challenging program among world-class peers.

While in New York, I interned for Human Rights Watch on international justice issues, monitoring diplomatic negotiations and enjoying the memorable experience of working in the Empire State Building! Indeed, throughout my studies and career, I have worked with a variety of NGOs. These include Amnesty International, with whom I worked to establish a network of human rights defenders and supporters throughout the Asia-Pacific, as well as Oxfam and the Inspire Foundation in youth-focused roles. These roles were an incredible experience, helping me to successfully translate my learning into professional skills and, more importantly, develop my overall career path.

I have also provided direct legal services. I clerked for Deacons (now Norton Rose), and then worked for the firm as a commercial advisory lawyer for 2.5 years immediately post-law school. My role at the firm was an excellent way to sharpen my legal and general professional skills, and together with my legal education, has served as an invaluable foundation for my whole career. I have also provided pro bono legal services to human rights defenders around the world, and homeless and otherwise disadvantaged communities in Australia.

Finally, I have also worked in academia. I am presently a casual international law lecturer at Cambodia’s Royal University of Law and Economics, where I often find myself taking lessons from my best university professors in terms of effective teaching style. I have also taught in the Government and International Relations program at the University of Sydney and served as a research assistant at both Columbia Law School and at Sydney Law School, where I worked for Dean Gillian Triggs on international criminal law issues.

What is your fondest memory of your time at Sydney Law School?

Meaning no disrespect to the usual classroom or the professors at their helm, I most appreciated opportunities to learn externally. Studying international law intensively for a semester in the Netherlands and Chinese law for a winter in Shanghai was not only immense fun but particularly enriching, as these experiences let me develop my comparative perspective in depth. In addition, the field trip our criminology class took to a correctional facility measurably improved my understanding of the criminal justice system and is still a point of reference in my current criminal procedure-focused rule of law work.

What one piece of advice would you give to law students today?

Always take the initiative, show a bit of gumption, see the best in every opportunity, and take on a challenge with enthusiasm and a can-do attitude rather than dread or blind panic. You are the person most responsible for your fate, and life is short, so take charge of it.