She has received anonymous death threats and threats of rape. Her home has been ransacked. Her tires have been slashed and her car pierced with bullets. She has been accused of being a spy and even of running a brothel. What about that time somebody threw a grenade at her office? “It didn’t go off,” says Kimberley Motley, Law ’03. For one of the few Western lawyers trying cases in Afghanistan, all of that is just the price of doing business.

By Chris Jenkins

Motley is often the first contact for a Westerner who gets in hot water in Afghanistan, and she is a lifeline for Afghan women who have been sold into slavery or are victims of unimaginable domestic violence.

What is Motley doing in a dangerous, notoriously corrupt country fighting legal battles in languages she doesn’t speak? She is passionately upholding the rule of law in a place where it isn’t valued — a topic she addressed in her recent TED Talk, which was viewed online more than 600,000 times.

In her TED Talk, which has been viewed more than 600,000 times, Kimberley Motley talks about defending women in Afghanistan.
In her TED Talk, which has been viewed more than 600,000 times, Kimberley Motley talks about defending women in Afghanistan.

“I want to raise the bar of rule of law, period,” Motley says during a long-distance telephone interview from her office in Kabul. “To show people that they do have laws that are there to protect them, that they need to use these laws and that they have the power to do it if they so choose to do it. That’s what’s really important to me. I’m trying to set good precedent in this country through these cases. And I’m trying to show them that their culture allows for this, allows for women to be protected.”

She was inspired to attend Marquette Law School after her father lost a legal dispute with his employer, one that left his family struggling to get by. Later Motley was working as a public defender in Milwaukee when she was recruited as a contractor for a U.S. State Department justice-funded program to train defense attorneys in Afghanistan.

It was her first time overseas.

The experience didn’t inspire Motley to continue in government law. But she saw a real need for good lawyers to defend Westerners who were being held in Afghan prisons without representation. She decided to stay in Afghanistan and try to make it on her own.

Her big break came while defending William Shaw, a former British army officer who was arrested while working for a private security firm in Afghanistan. Motley says Shaw’s armored vehicle was impounded by police and when he paid a fee to get it back, he demanded a receipt as proof of the transaction. Instead, Afghan police accused him of bribery.

Motley calls the case against Shaw “absurd,” one of her favorite words used to describe things that happen in Afghanistan. But in a convoluted legal system where overwhelming evidence and airtight legal arguments sometimes take a back seat to tradition and customs, winning Shaw’s case was anything but automatic. He was represented by an American woman lawyer in a place that’s inherently distrustful of Americans and largely dismissive of women. And Motley wasn’t willing to pay bribes, something that earned her funny looks in a place, she says, the United Nations has listed as “the No. 1 most corrupt country in the world.”


“American lady representing a British guy. To the Afghans, that’s like, ‘Wow, that’s going to be a lot of money that we can get under the table,’” Motley says. “But I was like, ‘We’re not paying.’”

Shaw was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. He had the right to an appeal, and Motley told him she’d understand if he wanted different representation. The British ambassador made it clear to Motley that he wanted Shaw to get an experienced Afghan lawyer. But Shaw chose to stick with Motley. “I gave him a lot of credit because that’s pretty brave,” says Motley, “because he was doing the time — and it’s not easy time.”

Since traditional American legal tactics failed the first time around, Motley changed course for the appeal. “The first time I did it kind of American-ish, where I had my exhibits, I had my really succinct legal arguments. I was very proper, very poised,” she says. “But that’s not what works here. What works here is yelling like you’re crazy, talking over people, telling people to sit down when they’re talking nonsense, and pulling out a holy book and saying, ‘Let’s swear on this, right here, right now.’”


Picture a courtroom full of men, she says, half Afghans and half Westerners, with the only woman in the room yelling at the prosecutor to sit down, speaking through a translator. “My translators know not to just translate my words,” Motley says. “They translate my nonverbals, too. If they don’t want to do that, then they’re not my translators any more. So they’re getting it double — me yelling at them and my translators yelling at them.”

Shaw was found not guilty on appeal. The British ambassador apologized to Motley for doubting her, then hired her to represent him and the British embassy. Suddenly, she was established.

“That was a pretty great feeling, and that really sort of put my flag out, made my mark here, that I mean business in representing my clients,” Motley says. “Since then, for I would say the past five years, I have probably represented over 80 percent of the foreigners that have been locked up in Afghanistan, and there’s quite a few. And I’ve won every case in court.”


Motley’s success defending Western clients in Afghanistan allowed her to take on other kinds of cases. Recently she made headlines around the world for pro bono work defending women from appalling violations of their human rights. In one case a jirga, which is a council of village elders and religious leaders whose decisions often supersede formal Afghan law, forced a 6-year-old girl into an arranged marriage with a 21-year-old neighbor to pay off her father’s $2,500 debt. Motley brought the two families before a second jirga, at which all parties agreed that the original deal was illegal and that if anyone involved tried to commit a similar act in the future, he would go to jail.

In another case a 12-year-old girl was sold into marriage by her brother, then forced into prostitution and brutally tortured when she refused. The first time she escaped, a neighbor dragged her back to the house. When she finally got away for good, Motley took her case to the Afghan supreme court. It was the first time a domestic violence victim was represented before that court by a lawyer — who won.

Afghan society might look the other way on actions that would be considered moral outrages in the United States. But don’t try to tell Motley that cultural differences make the actions acceptable to Afghans. “They know they’re doing something wrong,” she says. “If you thought that beating your wife was a great thing, why didn’t you do it out in the open? If you thought that selling this girl was OK, why didn’t you have it out in the open? They do things behind closed doors and pretend it’s fine. No, it’s not fine. And they know it’s not fine.”


Ask Motley which kind of case is more satisfying to win and you may be surprised by her answer. “When I win for a Western person, I think the feeling is 100 times more satisfactory than winning one of these women’s cases,” she says. “I know that Westerners can get on a plane — and I frankly often drive them to the airport — and fly the hell out and never look back. Whereas with a women’s case, it’s like, yes, I won this legally, but they still have to deal with the culture. Yes, I got them out of jail, but where are they going? They’re going to a shelter where they’re going to be locked down or they’re going to their house, where they’re going to be beaten all over again. It’s very difficult.”

Motley has grown accustomed to the danger and drama of life in Afghanistan. Her husband, Claudiare, calls her ability to compartmentalize difficult emotional situations “uncanny.”

“Maybe it’s a situation where she knows that she can get some justice, so she can tuck that away and put more of that energy into the work,” he says.


Motley notes the irony of the fact that perhaps the most traumatic event her family has endured happened in Milwaukee last summer. Claudiare was attending his high school reunion in June 2014 when he was shot in the jaw during an attempted carjacking. He’s OK now, but Motley wonders how it’s possible that she’s safer in Kabul than he was on the streets of a U.S. city. Motley rushed home after the shooting and, as Claudiare’s attorney, she worked with local law enforcement to help round up members of an alleged carjacking ring.

Claudiare hopes the incident leads to safer streets in Milwaukee. “The light was shined on what happened,” he says. “We probably saved a lot of people from a lot of difficult things.”

Motley is thinking about expanding her law practice into other troubled countries. And there are other projects on the horizon. She will be featured in a documentary of her life titled Motley’s Law that was developed by a Danish film crew that followed her for three years. Motley is producing a story with a major network studio in the United States, the work inspired by her life may appear soon as a television drama.

Motley, who has three children, says family support has been key to it all, even if some of her family members don’t quite understand why she’s doing it. “They care for me, and they’re worried about my safety, which is totally understandable,” she says. “But at the end of the day, this is what I’ve chosen to do.”


  1. What a remarkable donation to the world! Kimberley Motley has willingly given her talents to helping people in dire situations. She has not allowed can’ts and not allowed to hinder her drive to provide people with the legal representation they all deserve. Godspeed Kimberley and may others be motivated by your devotion to law and your willingness to sacrifice for your passion.

  2. The Marquette University Alumni Association board proudly gave Kimberley Motley the Spirit of Marquette Award in 2012. It was well deserved!

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