News UMass Law: UMass Law Adjunct Professor Judge George Phelan Reflects on a Busy 2023 and His Unlikely Path to the Judiciary

News UMass Law: UMass Law Adjunct Professor Judge George Phelan Reflects on a Busy 2023 and His Unlikely Path to the Judiciary
UMass Law Adjunct Professor Judge George Phelan Reflects on a Busy 2023 and His Unlikely Path to the Judiciary

Judge George Phelan reflects on a busy 2023, while focusing on the year ahead.


Massachusetts Probate and Family Court Judge George Phelan maintained a busy pace in 2023, educating the Bar and public about legal trends in Family and Probate Law. This year, Judge Phelan’s webinar on satisfying attorney professional responsibility in estate planning for limited English clients was hosted by the Massachusetts Bar Association Probate Law Council. He also presented another webinar on the opportunities and pitfalls in attorney communications with immigrants for Trusts and Estates Journal. Stepping in to another role, Judge Phelan was a panelist for the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education seminar titled “Trusts, Inheritances and Divorce” discussing the crossover of Probate and Family Law. Additionally, for the eleventh consecutive year, Judge Phelan presented at the MBA Annual Probate Law Conference on “Divorce Agreement and other Contracts: Post-Death Litigation Involving Non-Probate Assets”. 


Judge Phelan’s article (co-author) on “Trusts, Inheritances, Gifts and Opportunities in Divorce” was published in the Massachusetts Law Review, the nation’s oldest law review (Vol. 104 Number 3 November 2023). His previous speaking forums have included American Bar Association Annual Family Law Conference, Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, Boston Bar Association, Boston Estate Planning Forum, Massachusetts Bar Association Annual Family Law Conference, Massachusetts Guardians Ad Litem Association, and Social Law Library. His publications have also appeared in the Georgia Bar Family Law Review Spring 2023; New England Law Review; Trusts and Estates Journal; American Bar Association Family Advocate; MBA Probate Section Review; Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers; and Women Lawyers Journal.


In his personal reflection, Judge Phelan’s path to the bench was not paved by privilege. He reflects on his journey from non-English speaking immigrant six decades ago. “My mom is an immigrant, so are my wife and daughter. It is a matter of fact, not shadowy shame.” To Phelan, immigration and bias were not academic words: he had lived both. He learned bias “up close and personal, not by reading about it.”


Along with his Japanese mother he emigrated to the U.S. at age five, knowing not a word of English, self- taught by listening to radio and watching the only three television stations then available. He was assigned a mentor and was sent to “speech class”, a far cry from the prolific English Language Proficiency services now available. He lived fourteen years in a Fall River housing project which he described as a valuable life experience about the haves and have-nots.


Phelan could not afford to go to law school days so he worked full time, then commuted to Boston for night classes from Fall River. He served his country as a U.S. Army JAG Officer with deployments to Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, twice voluntarily leaving a successful law practice to answer the call to duty. After twenty-nine years military service, he retired as a full Colonel, had served as chief legal advisor to a two-star General, supervised more than twenty JAG officers, received two Bronze Stars and served in Iraq with the illustrious U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. For his work with Iraqi women’s rights and civil society groups he received from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the State Department’s annual Swanee Hunt Award for empowering women. Phelan observed: “At my rank, in Iraq I was free to choose my work portfolio. After realizing the desperate plight of Iraqi women and girls, their equality became my duty.”


Working towards the future, Judge Phelan continues to spread the notion of equality in his work on the adjunct faculty of UMass Law school, at the more than 80 continuing legal education seminars for which he volunteered as panelist, and in his written work. He has presided over thousands of cases, many involving immigrants.


Phelan observes that “immigrants import their culture to America. Many originate from non-Rule of Law environments where courts, police and lawyers are either the last resort or no resort at all for protection or justice. Women immigrants especially might carry cultural experiences of gender inequality, oppression or patriarchy. What should she expect from an American court? They have little hope or even knowledge of help available in the Family Court regarding child custody, support and protection from gender-based violence. I let them know that in America we are ruled by law, not religion, tribes or guns.”


In the face of an immigration surge, Phelan cautions that “different people come to different thoughts and conclusions about all manner of things which wind up in our Family Courts. It is helpful to lawyers, judges and court staff to understand that American norms are not absolute. Reflexive thinking must be examined for bias. Someone’s reaction, non-action or reluctance to look you in the eye may not be an indicator of guilt, consent, or agreement. We must avoid viewing the immigrant litigant and their specific country of origin as a negative. Family Court employees should be aware of implicit biases and the inappropriate outcomes which might result. Otherwise we are deprived of the opportunity to responsibly educate ourselves about myriad cultural complexities beyond just immigration status.”