*Editor’s note: Due to confidentiality issues, members of the delegation could not be named or photographed.
An intimate dinner with Massachusetts Bar Association leadership and members of the Diversity Task Force in Boston was one of the last stops during a whirlwind visit to the United States for a team of women legal professionals from Iraq.
The Aug. 21 dinner, as well as other events during their two-week visit, provided an important exchange between the Iraqi delegation and MBA members, creating
a bird’s-eye view of the legal profession in their respective countries.
The delegation of three had a perfect host in U.S. Army Col. George F. Phelan, an attorney who practices in Fall River. Phelan’s work with the U.S. State Department-sponsored "Rule of Law" program focuses on women’s rights advocacy. The delegation guests were three prominent women and other opinion leaders in Iraq’s justice system that he works with most closely to offer his assistance and that of the United States. He just completed a one-year military tour serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad’s Sadar City, described by Phelan as the "ground zero for human rights"
Phelan described that role with the State Department as the "best job I’ve ever had in the worst place I’ve ever been."
Although Phelan was soft-spoken with his delivery to the dinner crowd of about 40, his message was powerful to all and unbelievable to most. Phelan and the delegation then fielded an assortment of questions from the guests.
Phelan said that only 35 members of the Iraqi judiciary, or three percent, are women. Also, most women judges only preside over criminal cases, since there is a belief that family law is "too emotional" for female judges or attorneys.
According to Phelan and the delegates: trials are often conducted without electricity; professional development is nearly absent as no continuing legal education is offered for Iraqi legal professionals; and coordination with the courts and the detention facilities is a constant struggle. Even further, order in the system is jeopardized when religious law conflicts with government law. In fact, in a large percentage of family law cases, citizens opt to have their fate decided by religion, resulting in chaos from a legal perspective.
"This was a phenomenal exchange. Everyone who met these women has been in awe," said MBA Treasurer Denise Squillante, who assisted Phelan in completing the visitors’ itinerary.
Aside from the Aug. 21 dinner, the delegation, along with an interpreter, enjoyed a reception hosted by the National Association of Women Judges at the John Adams Courthouse on Aug. 19. Also, on Aug. 15, the delegation was treated to a luncheon hosted by the Bristol County Bar Association, the local bar association of both Squillante and Phelan. The delegation was also introduced to Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray and Senate President Therese Murray by MBA immediate Past President David W. White Jr.
In addition to the Massachusetts leg of their visit, the women were able to take part in the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in New York City. There, MBA Past President and ABA State Delegate Kay H. Hodge and Squillante were instrumental in exposing the visitors to the convention’s key offerings, as well as a personal introduction to outgoing ABA President William H. Neukom. Phelan also escorted the group to Washington, D.C.
The Aug. 21 dinner is the third such visit from international legal professional visitors to the MBA. Last August, then- MBA President Mark D Mason welcomed leaders from the Tokyo Bar Association; and in September, the association enjoyed a visit from Cambodian labor arbitrators.