Kimberley Motley is without question one of the most extraordinary people in the world today. The Milwaukee native has quite a few firsts on her resume. She is the only woman, the only American and, in fact, the only Westerner to practice law in one of most dangerous places in the world today – Afghanistan.
The feisty, tough-as-nails and down-to-earth attorney has a global practice with an international reputation, in which she defends American and other Europeans caught up in “legal and political quagmires” while she herself is often under the threat of assassination. Meanwhile, her husband and three kids are back home in North Carolina, for her to always think about. And now, a new must see and fascinating documentary about Ms. Motley and her work, by Danish filmmaker Nicole Horanyi, titled “Motley’s Law,” will make its premiere this month (Oct 20 and 22) at the 51st annual Chicago International Film Festival. Both Ms. Motley and Horanyi will be present for the screenings.
But just how did she get from the rough streets Milwaukee to the dangerous streets of Kabul? That, among other things, I had the opportunity to talk about with Ms Motley earlier this week, including her work as a private international litigator (I should add that she has never once lost a case), her experiences and why she fights against being put in a “box.”
SERGIO: I suppose when people see ‘Motley’s Law’ they’re thinking either one of two things: either that you’re the bravest person they’ve even met, or, if you will forgive me, that you’re crazy.
MOTLEY: (laughs) Well there’s a third theory out there too, which is a more absurd theory, that I’m a spy.
SERGIO: Well I’ll tell you what I thought when I watched the film – that, aside from all your very important legal work in a country that desperately needs it, you’re also something of a thrill seeker. That you love the adventure of it.
MOTLEY: (Laughs) You know what? I do. I think that having three kids definitely shows that I like adventure (laughs).
SERGIO: Watching the film’s detailing of life in Afghanistan every day, with the danger, I said to myself, there’s no way I would even visit the place, let alone live there for any period of time. Just how did this all come about? How did you get from being a public defender in Milwaukee, to becoming the only woman and Western defense attorney in Afghanistan?
MOTLEY: Well, basically, like I say in the documentary, I went there for the money. But how it all came about was rather interesting. I was working in the public defender’s office in Milwaukee, and I have a husband and three children. So one day I went out to lunch with this friend, and my friend, who was also a lawyer, told about a friend of theirs in Afghanistan who was working on a law project. So by that time I had been practicing for about 5 and half years, and how her friend was working in Afghanistan sounded cool, and I asked her if she could give me his e-mail so I could ask him some questions about it. And I should add that I get a five year “itch’ when I’m doing different things. So I contacted him by e-mail, sent him my CV (curriculum Vitae) basically telling him, what you’re doing sounds cool, here’s my background and if there are any openings let me know. And I admit I really didn’t think much of it at the time. I was sending out my CV to various places.
So, to make a long story short, some weeks later I was on my way out the door to court, and I get this phone call and it was people calling me from Afghanistan for a phone interview. So they told me that they were looking for someone to help train and mentor Afghan defense attorneys as part of a new project that they had going at the time. So months later, I was invited to go Afghanistan. First, there was this training program in Arlington to help us train and prepare for Afghanistan and I went through all that and was approved. And so later, I was assigned to go to Afghanistan. And I didn’t have a passport because I had never left the country before in my life. So I got that, and the pay at the time was literally quadruple what I was making as a public defender at the time, so that was a real easy incentive for me. Of course, I talked with my husband about it and and we figured O.K. fine. This is just a one year commitment because that was the idea at the time, that it would be a burden, but in the long run it would be good for the family as a whole to do this. So that’s what originally got me there.
So during that year I went and met with a lot of people, visiting several prisons around the country; and in doing that I met a lot of foreigners who were locked up and no one was helping them. Foreigners from South Africa, the U.K, Australia, from America – all English speaking people – and the embassies were doing very little to help them; and the Afghan lawyers were doing even less than that. So they were coming to me like “Could you please help us?”
I have a very strong litigation background. I love going to court and everything, and I missed that. And I wasn’t happy with the program that I was in because I saw they were not there, in my opinion, to really change anything and or assist in establishing the rule of law. Frankly, they were there for… checks. Yes, that’s why I went there originally too, but let’s say that I was earning my money, while other people were just getting checks and not doing anything. They weren’t going anywhere. They were staying in the compound and the only place they would go is to the airport to fly in and out of the country. They weren’t engaging with the Afghans as they should have. After a year I left my position and opened up my own practice and went solo and that’s sort of how it all happened.
SERGIO: What was it, do you think, that made those people in the beginning believe you were the right choice for that program in Afghanistan, in the first place?
MOTLEY: I think because I was trying to be for my clients that I was representing. I’m not an ambulance chaser. I think people have this misconception that I’m a human rights lawyer. I am a private international litigator. My firm is set up as a for-profit firm where the vast majority of my clients are paid clients. I represent a lot of commercial entities in Afghanistan, I represent a lot of foreigners jailed criminal offences in Afghanistan. I also represent several embassies and ambassadors in the country, and top positions were created for me.
I represent the U.K., the Italian, the French and United Arab Emirates embassies, and ambassadors in the country. Now about 30% of my work is human rights and women’s rights cases. That’s what I’ve sort of become known for, but in the beginning, I was known for representing foreigners that were locked up and, frankly, winning and getting them out of prison. So I am completely self funded. I don’t take grants or anything like that. And I do that on purpose because I don’t respect how a lot of grants are given to different agencies because I don’t think there’s a lot of oversight. So I pay for everything myself.
In fact, just today I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign in which I’m seeking funds from the general public for my Justness Project to help fund some of this pro bono stuff, because it’s become its own beast (Go HERE to check out the Kickstarter page) but in a good way. I have clients all over the world and people all the time asking me to help them. I have clients in basically every country expect Antarctica, and it’s only just beginning really.
SERGIO: But people will no doubt say, what a burden it must be for your husband and children back in North Carolina. Always concerned about your safety and welfare in such a dangerous place, halfway around the world. But then again I suppose they must be used to it by now.
MOTLEY: Well I talk to my family a lot; I talk to my kids, though you understand, I don’t share everything with them because they are kids. But, at the end of the day, they know me and they trust me. And that’s who they have to trust – me. They know me and that’s it. It’s like having a member of the family who’s in the military. You deal with it. My father was in the military. He was in the Air Force. So it was what it was.
SERGIO: Well let me tell you what a friend of mine who saw “Motley’s Law” said to me: that you must have grown up “in da hood”. A rough, urban neighborhood just by your toughness.; your “take no shit” demeanor and the way you seem to take everything in stride; and that you obviously see Afghanistan as just one big tough neighborhood, not unlike where you probably grew up.
MOTLEY: (Giggles) You know it’s funny that he said that because that is true to a certain extent. I always tell people that I grew up in a bad neighborhood, and Afghanistan is like one really big bad neighborhood. That’s how I look at it. Streets smarts goes a long, long way. I grew up in an urban environment, but I went to a predominately white school. My father is Black and my mother is Korean, so I’ve always been good with different races and ethnicities. I mean, I’m proud of who I am, my ethnicity. But I don’t like it when people define me as just a Black woman, or just a Korean woman. I don’t like to be categorized because I just am who I am. And the fact that I grew up in a bad neighborhood and also the fact that I have gown up with various different ethnicities, to be able to “switch” when I was young, helped a lot. And also seeing the conflicts between Blacks and Koreans, because they don’t always get along. But these weren’t things that crippled me. I think that only helped me.
SERGIO: Perhaps you’re saying that, actually being in Afghanistan was a natural progression for you.
MOTLEY: I feel like I have met the world in Afghanistan. One thing that’s really cool is that, you know, I have friends all over the world which is great. But I was open to it.
SERGIO: Would say then that you have faced more difficulties being a woman over there, than being a person of color because, well, Afghans are people of color too anyway, and with the exception of the occasional soldier, there are hardly any black people at all over there. So I don’t think they actually understand the concept of racism over there.
MOTLEY: Yeah, I think Americans are way too color struck unfortunately. And from my experiences overseas and especially in Afghanistan, there are two categories of people – there are foreigners and non-foreigners; and I’m in the foreigners group. They don’t look at me like, “Oh you’re a Black American”. You’re a foreigner and that’s it. Afghan women are definitely in the Afghan women category, Afghan men are Afghan men, but as foreigners we’re in the foreign category. If my race or being a woman becomes an issue, I don’t allow it to become an issue. Frankly, I’ve had more of an issue with foreign men being a woman, than with Afghans.
SERGIO: Which doesn’t surprise me, or shouldn’t surprise anybody.
MOTLEY: Because, unfortunately, a lot of foreign men start adopting this sexist bullshit thing, because there are a lot of foreigners who are there, because they can’t get a job in the US. So they have this horrible, horrible attitude, which is a major reason why I didn’t like the program I was in. Some of those men were in the program. So that’s how I see it. I think of it like, this is what I do, and I love what I do. But people try to figure what sort of a box to put you in. I’m not in a box. There’s no box there. It is what it is.
SERGIO: I’m happy you said that. That’s one thing I say again and again, is that too many black people put themselves in a box and stay there. Because “I’m black and in this box, I can only do this thing and that, and only supposed to do that and nothing else”. You have to get out of that slave mentality mindset, You have to break out of that box.
MOTLEY: Right and my whole thing is that there is no box. That’s what I’m operating on because a lot of people are their own worst enemy. They put themselves in a box, and if you allow for people to do that, then you do that to yourself, and you can’t really fly. You can’t really flourish the way you need to. I think some of the greatest people, some of the greatest leaders have developed this concept that there is no box. They understand that you have to learn to fail in order to know how to succeed.
Here is the trailer for “Motley’s Law” and a TED talk Motley gave last year in Rio de Janeiro: