Lawyers Act To Help Afghans Who Fear For Their Lives

This article has been saved to your Favorites!
Lawyer Julie Kornfeld says her clients in Afghanistan, people who aided the U.S. government and have applied for special visas to leave the country, are deeply fearful for their lives as the Taliban seize control of the nation.

The legal help needed for people in Afghanistan who may become targets of the Taliban is substantial, according to Kornfeld, senior staff attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, which partners with large law firms on pro bono work.

Securing a special immigrant visa or other avenue to escape Afghanistan and find refuge in the U.S. or elsewhere is a complicated, messy legal process that often requires the help of a lawyer, and that help is urgently needed now, Kornfeld said.

Since U.S. troops began their withdrawal from Afghanistan, her clients have received more direct and more consistent death threats following years of violence and killings at the hands of the Taliban, she said.

"My clients are fearful for their lives and fearful of whether they can leave Afghanistan, and if they can't, what life will become if they stay," she said.

When Law360 Pulse spoke to Kornfeld on Wednesday, she said she hadn't slept in three days so that she could remain in constant contact with clients she is helping to get out of the country.

One man, she said, stood waiting to enter the airport in Kabul for 12 hours with his 35-weeks pregnant wife and 3-year-old child. The client was able to push himself in with his family and find a spot on a plane headed out of Afghanistan. This occurred after Kornfeld had exhausted all of her contacts in the U.S. Department of State and military in an effort to get the family into the airport.

"My clients show so much hope, resilience, persistence and savvy," Kornfeld said. "It wasn't just my legal advocacy; it was also his self-advocacy that got them out."

Arnold & Porter's Work

Arnold & Porter is one of the law firms that partners with IRAP on its refugee programs and is currently working to offer aid to Afghans in need of legal help.

The firm has assembled a pro bono team to assist those who need help escaping Afghanistan. One team member is the head of the firm's global law and public policy practice, John Bellinger III.

Bellinger was previously legal adviser to the State Department and legal adviser to the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

Bellinger has been pro bono counsel for the past five years for the American University of Afghanistan, a U.S.-funded school created after the 9/11 terror attacks that was forced to close in recent days as the Taliban took control of the country and professors and staff attempted to flee to other nations.

Over the years, the university has been a target of the Taliban, and it experienced a terrorist attack five years ago in which students were injured and two professors were kidnapped, Bellinger said.

In addition to helping professors leave the country, Bellinger is also helping the university move its money — which is mostly made up of U.S. taxpayer dollars — out of Afghanistan, a feat he said will take some considerable legal wrangling.

"We want to get the money out so that it can continue to be used to fund any programs we're able to continue and help our professors, staff and students," he said.

Bellinger said an agreement may need to be made with the Taliban in order to move the money out of Afghan banks.

Since before Sept. 11, 2001, there have been prohibitions against Americans dealing with the Taliban, but Bellinger says that now it may be necessary to do so. He says he hopes to see the U.S. Department of the Treasury issue some guidance to allow for it.

Bellinger said it is "head spinning" for him to witness the Taliban take over Afghanistan 20 years after the U.S. invasion of the country, which he saw from the White House in 2001.

"It's personal in particular to watch Afghanistan, which the U.S. government worked incredibly hard to rebuild and strengthen the rule of law and human rights and women's rights, the judiciary, the free press, the educational system, to see all of this threatened by the Taliban," he said.

Akin Gump's Work

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP is another global law firm that has assembled a pro bono team of about two dozen lawyers responsible for taking on work related to the crisis in Afghanistan.

While not an official partner of IRAP, the law firm has committed to give the organization $125,000.

Akin Gump currently has a handful of ongoing matters in Afghanistan, with more coming in as the situation unfolds, pro bono partner Steve Schulman told Law360 Pulse on Wednesday.

The firm has acted as pro bono counsel to a nongovernmental organization in the country that has had to get its personnel out of Afghanistan, Schulman said. The firm was able to help about 50 people obtain visas, but as of Wednesday they had not yet been able to leave the country.

Schulman says Akin Gump attorneys in Hong Kong, Washington, D.C., and Dallas all worked overtime to help those personnel obtain visas to a European Union country.

The firm also has asylum cases coming in involving former Afghanistan government officials now in the U.S., he said.

"We do have a number of other attorneys who have reached out who know people trying to get people out of Afghanistan, and we are trying to help the best we can," Schulman said. "It's a very sensitive and tenuous process."

In less than 24 hours, Schulman says he was able to put together an email list to gather a team to work on asylum cases and distributed training on the asylum process.

"Everybody is doing what they can to offer help and figure out how they can help," he said. "It's incredible to see the firm and the entire legal community come together and think about solutions."

--Editing by Jill Coffey and Nicole Bleier.

Corrections: Previous versions of this story mischaracterized Bellinger's activities in Afghanistan and misidentified the amount Akin Gump donated to IRAP. The errors have been corrected.

For a reprint of this article, please contact



Law360 Law360 UK Law360 Tax Authority Law360 Employment Authority Law360 Insurance Authority Law360 Real Estate Authority


Social Impact Leaders Prestige Leaders Pulse Leaderboard Glass Ceiling Report Law360 400 Diversity Snapshot Rising Stars NEWSummer Associates

National Sections

Modern Lawyer Courts Daily Litigation In-House Mid-Law Legal Tech Small Law Insights

Regional Sections

California Pulse Connecticut Pulse DC Pulse Delaware Pulse Florida Pulse Georgia Pulse New Jersey Pulse New York Pulse Pennsylvania Pulse Texas Pulse

Site Menu

Subscribe Advanced Search About Contact