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Alexandra Jones is passionate about using public health law to improve the lives of others. Like many university students, Alexandra Jones’s decision to study law was driven by a desire to practise in the public interest.

But when it came to looking for jobs, options for working in the area were thin on the ground. After receiving her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney and doing a clerkship, Jones took up a role as a graduate solicitor at Henry Davis York, focusing on commercial litigation and employment law. The experience had a lot of pluses.

“I enjoyed the thrill of overcoming nerves to conquer the amateur dramatics of routine court appearances and mastering the minutiae of client demands, complex case law and domestic legislation,” she says.

“I gained a realistic picture of life as an Australian commercial solicitor, beyond crisp suits and polished foyers.

“It was great to work with a lot of smart people but I knew it wasn’t for me. My most enjoyable experiences came after hours, under the fluorescent din of community legal centre lights and the expressions of gratitude from pro bono clients.”

This is why, in May 2009, Jones traded her secure Sydney world for a chance to advocate for human rights as an AusAID volunteer in Cambodia. Working as a legal officer with Bridges Across Borders in Phnom Penh’s urban slums, she found that many presumptions about legal systems didn’t apply.

Jones says a colleague’s throwaway introduction to Cambodia – “life as a lawyer in the land of the lawless” – was an apt preview to the country’s somewhat “murky” legal system.

“It was an amazing experience,” she recalls. “But it was also hard to learn that no matter how hard you work or how dedicated you are, it is difficult to make a difference in a country where the rule of law really isn’t functioning.”

Challenges such as poverty, political instability, ineffectual management, corruption, and sheer absence of political will made providing legal aid difficult, although it did provide a crash course in negotiating in an environment overrun with competing local and international interests. Undaunted, the experience strengthened her resolve to find ways to use the law to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.

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