Meet Kimberley Motley: The Only American, Westerner, and Woman to Practice Law in Afghanistan

Say hello to Kimberley Motley, the first American and foreigner to hang a shingle in Afghanistan in 2009. She began her practice defending foreign prisoners, and it has evolved into an international litigation practice where she represents Afghan men and women, international and foreign companies, NGOs, embassies, and people around the world. She has achieved countless victories throughout her career, handling many heartwrenching cases and single-handedly bringing justness to Afghanistan. Some of her most remarkable successes include a case where she helped an imprisoned teenage rape victim receive a presidential pardon from former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and a case where she brokered a deal to prevent a six-year-old Afghan girl from becoming a child bride. I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Kimberley and asking her about her prolific and fearless career.

You went to Marquette Law School and worked as a public defender in Milwaukee for six years. What brought you to Afghanistan?

I went in 2008 and was given the opportunity to do a justice program funded by the U.S. Department of State to train and mentor Afghan defense attorneys. I came here for the money. At that point in time, it was a financial opportunity.

What incentivized you to stay?

My first year of being there, I was training Afghan defense attorneys and I was a contractor. I went around the country to various prisons and met a lot of foreigners who were locked up and who lacked legal representation and their embassies weren’t doing much to protect them. After meeting several foreigners and seeing their need for legal representation, I decided to quit my job and start my private practice in 2009. Those factors, and to support my family, are what made me stay here.

Did you fear that you wouldn’t be taken seriously when you started litigating in Afghanistan?

To be honest, I never had a fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. It just wasn’t an option, frankly. In that first year, I met a lot of Afghan professionals, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, so I already developed relationships with a lot of people in the justice sector. Honestly, I didn’t ask permission for a lot of things. It just felt right.

How did your practice evolve over time?

When I originally started practicing, I only wanted to represent foreigners because I wanted to develop my practice in an organic way. That was already pushing a line. Once I got comfortable going to court, and once Afghans were comfortable seeing me in the court system, I started representing Afghans more publicly. I didn’t know how that would be taken. First, I started representing Afghan men. Then, I pushed the line further and started representing Afghan women. Representing women is a very sensitive issue in Afghan culture—most are imprisoned for “moral crimes,” like adultery or running away.

Did the language barrier impact or hinder your ability to practice law?

It just slows things down. You always have to make sure that the laws are being properly translated. There are definitely challenges with the language barrier, but that’s just legal practice: there are challenges with everything.

How do you decide what kind of cases and clients you take on?

I am a sole practitioner and I represent international companies, international NGOs, foreign embassies, and criminal defendants. About thirty percent of my work is pro bono, which is self-funded. My clients are not just in Afghanistan; I represent clients all around the world. I am a for-profit international litigator and I also choose to be a global investor in human rights.

When you say you are a global investor in human rights, can you explain that?

A portion of my work is pro bono. I don’t expect grant funding, and I don’t take any money from governments—I want to represent people and not governmental interests. Pro bono work is very expensive and I pay for that myself. International stuff, travel, translators, it is a huge expense. That makes me a global investor in human rights because most of those cases, if not all of them, have a human rights element to them. I encourage other businesses and people to be investors in human rights because I believe that human rights are not something that only NGOs and diplomatic missions should invest in; they are something that private entities should invest in because human rights benefit all of us on this planet. That is what I mean by being a global investor.

You have said in your amazing Ted talk that you use existing laws in Afghanistan to help the people that they were meant to protect.  Have you met resistance from judges and the community to this approach?

I have found that there has been resistance to me bringing up laws—mainly because people are ignorant of those laws. Also, unwritten procedure trumps the law and people do the same wrong thing over and over. I found that to point the laws out and literally bring a book and show people, this is what the law says, this is what the Holy Koran says, then they are kind of like, “huh.”  I think this reality is unfortunate but the job of a lawyer is to educate people about the law.  That is something that I do here, that is something I have done in the U.S. as well; that is just a part of lawyering.

Has the press attention on you and your career impacted your ability to litigate in Afghanistan or other countries (there was also a recent documentary made about Kimberley and her career, titled "Motley's Law")?

I would say that it has impacted my legal career and my ability to litigate in Afghanistan because I find that pretty much any case that I get now is a high profile case.  I will say that litigating in Afghanistan gives me more credibility to litigate cases outside of Afghanistan because I have people all over the world who reach out to me.  I just picked up a case in Malaysia literally yesterday, so I am going to Malaysia next week.  I found that my work here has translated to where people recognize that I do advocate in court, and it has really opened my eyes to the lack of effective litigation in a lot of jurisdictions.

Your job can be very dangerous—are you ever scared?

I don’t work well in fear. But when anyone’s liberty is at stake, and you are responsible for trying to protect that liberty to the best of your ability, that is extremely scary. Liberty is the most valuable thing we have.

You have a family in the U.S.; how do you align your personal and professional worlds and find balance?

It is a difficult balance. It is hard for me to separate my work from my life and my life from my work.  It is all intertwined. I will say that my husband is very supportive—this is a family business. My husband is the financial officer and my daughter—she is 19 and just started college a couple of weeks ago—she traveled with me to different countries in her gap year between high school and college. I have three kids, and my husband and I try to show them how to be investors in human rights. I try to do as much as I can now because my goal in what I do is to benefit the next generation—my kids’ generation.

What advice would you give on being an effective litigator?

You have to be a good listener. Period.  You have to humble yourself and be personable, which I think a lot of attorneys unfortunately don’t do.  You have to understand that you can learn from anybody and that you can learn from your clients. Litigation is no different from an art form and the courtroom is a stage: be aware of your surroundings and all verbal and nonverbal cues. Be well-read and know the history of the issues. Be aware of the culture, your client, and everyone impacted by the case. Put in the hours, be compassionate, and be smart.

What is your advice to young women lawyers who recently graduated from law school, have law school debt, and don’t yet have a clear career path?

I understand the pressures of having a huge debt from law school and wanting to make a lot of money as fast as you can so you can start paying that debt back.  I recommend not going for the money. When I started practicing law in Afghanistan, for that first nine months, I did all my cases pro bono because I did not want to take anyone’s money. Sometimes you have to be willing to do this in order to reap the reward. If you want to be a litigator and are not able to get a job, my advice is to go talk to people, sit in court, and soak up as much information as you can. Believe in yourself. If you want to do something—just do it—I did what was outside the box. My motto is that there is no box. It is easy for people to say how cool my job is now but in the beginning it wasn’t so cool. I had a lot of haters.

You mentioned in your TED talk that you don’t expect people to buy a ticket and go to Afghanistan (in order to be global investors in human rights). How can lawyers in the U.S. be global investors in human rights if they don’t take on human rights cases or practice international law like you?

There are a million things you can do: mentor a lawyer for free. You can make a donation to UNICEF or any organization that you believe in. I just think people need to give in a way that is comfortable and of interest to them.  I would never say you should specifically do this.  Just because you are a lawyer, you do not have to do pro bono law.  Maybe you work in a corporate law office and the last thing you want to do is more legal stuff for other people because you do it so much.  Speak at a school—volunteer at a school—do something because I feel very fortunate that I can do something. There are a lot of people that have very little but that do a lot.


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