Freshfields pushes back the language barrier with Spanish lessons for schools

Whoever devises GCSE foreign language syllabuses has obviously not spent that much time with teenage girls.

If they had, they would know that the textbook set phrases on such things as buying an exercise book or getting directions to the train station are irrelevant to those who would rather buy a Miss Selfridge handbag and find the nearest club.

This was clear when 30 or so pupils from Haggerston School for Girls in the London Borough of Hackney turned up to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s cafeteria for Virtual Madrid – an annual Spanish role-play event the firm lays on that, as its community investment manager James ­Daffurn puts it, is “pretty much their last lesson before they do their [GCSE] exam”.

Reflecting the demands of the forthcoming oral exam, the magic circle firm, which has had a ­partnership with the school for more than 10 years, created a virtual café, stationery shop and train station with the help of six volunteers (including The Lawyer), a box of flamenco costumes and plenty of gusto. Olé!

But the first hitch came at the café where, despite an abundant display of croissants, muffins, sweets and fruit, much food was left untouched. Of course, half of the students were on a diet.

Then came La Estación de Freshfields, where students were supposed to get a ticket back to the fictional terminus at Haggerston. A mutiny began when one of the girls decided she’d rather walk, while others weren’t going to be ripped off by the hugely inflated price of €10 and demanded a descuento.

After some masterful ad libbing from the woman playing the ticket booth attendant – consisting of a variety of techniques ­varying between intimidation “Es muy peligroso ir a pie!” (“It’s very dangerous to go by foot!”) and compulsion “Qué morro! Es porque ya has gastado todo tu dinero! No tienes otra opción sino comprártelo!” (roughly ­translated as “Quit arguing and cough up the money!”) – we managed to get them all aboard.

There may have been some folded arms, slouched postures and the odd mumble about “hating school” but the intransigence of these girls was on the whole more playful than apathetic.

They were enthused in the librería (stationery shop) when, over talk of the price of biros and Post-it notes, Freshfields capital markets associate Barbara Hungerford revealed that she was originally from Nueva York. “New York! That’s so cool,” they cooed. Barbara was their NBF (new best friend).

A conversation in between role plays about el futuro led one ­student to divulge to The Lawyer that she wanted to do a law degree and get a job as an immigration ­solicitor. The passionate railing against injustice that leads so many into law in the first place was evident in her voice.

It’s a continued belief in broad principles of access to justice and fairness that makes community investment programmes so ­popular among staff once they arrive at the largest City firms. And Freshfields is no exception.

The language days (the magic circle firm also runs a Virtual Paris morning along the same model) are part of its community and pro bono programme, which covers disadvantaged young ­people, homelessness, access to justice and human rights. And Daffurn thinks that the shorter-time commitment of something like Virtual Madrid makes it a viable option for those with busy schedules.

However, turnout among Freshfields’ staff was relatively low on this occasion, with the firm having to rope in somebody from the ­cafeteria at the last moment to make up numbers.

“Obviously we always want more [staff participating],” affirms Daffurn. “You’re always going to have people dropping out, but it’s extremely important to our staff. Virtual Madrid’s an opportunity to use their language skills and it links to engagement and motivation. Last year 40,000 hours were put into community work, the equivalent of £6.4m globally. When you look at the type of hourly rates solicitors can pull off, it’s a big ­commitment. Thirty-eight per cent of staff got involved in pro bono and community work last year.”

As with firms such as Addleshaw Goddard or Simmons & Simmons, there is a formal mechanism for recognising community and pro bono work. Pro bono legal work is included in Freshfields’ appraisal process, and also counts for work allocation and bonuses.

Freshfields’ partnership with Haggerston focuses on employability. As well as getting the girls in for GCSE oral practice, it has a schools mentoring ­programme run by the East ­London Business Alliance, which focuses on career advice. It offers annual work ­experience and those at the firm were deeply saddened when a ­former work experience participant, 16-year old Agnes Sina-Inakoju, was recently shot dead as she stood with friends in a fast food joint in Hoxton.

The school is in one of the more deprived parts of London and was assigned Grade 3 and 4 status (out of 4) in a number of areas on a recent Ofsted inspection. The challenges of acquiring an additional foreign language are accentuated by the fact that many students speak English as a second language. But it is a school looking to improve its lot and Freshfields is also involved in governance aspects, with head of corporate finance Barry O’Brien acting as chair of governance there.

“A lot of these young people don’t leave the boroughs where they live,” says Daffurn. “We try to break down these barriers by ­getting them in here. They don’t have to be a lawyer. Forty per cent of our staff work in business services. There’s a whole host of options.”

Just don’t expect them to get the train to work.