Freshfields’ finance lawyers get their hands dirty in Africa

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer sent members of its finance team to South Africa in the autumn to build houses for the poor of Durban’s townships.

Four years ago, Freshfields decided to focus its corporate responsibility programme on homelessness and education in an effort to internationalise the firm’s charitable efforts.

The charity Habitat For Humanity International was chosen as one beneficiary and the finance group was the first to contribute when it built houses in Romania three years ago.

Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit, nondenominational Christian housing organisation. It encourages volunteers to raise money and to help build houses for those who need them.

Habitat houses are purchased by the homeowner families. Three factors make the houses affordable to low-income people worldwide: the houses are sold at no profit and with no interest charged on the mortgage; homeowners and volunteers build the houses under trained supervision; and individuals, corporations, faith groups and others provide financial support. Homeowner families are chosen according to their need, their ability to repay the no-profit, no-interest mortgage and their willingness to work in partnership with Habitat.

Freshfields staff raised money throughout the year through a sponsored cross-country ski marathon, go-kart races, quiz nights and other events.

The firm paid for three teams of 15 volunteers to fly out to Durban. Head of finance Simon Hall led by example and was joined by some of his lawyers and support staff on a building site in the Durban suburbs.

In temperatures rising to 35°C, the teams each spent three days mixing cement and laying bricks with the future homeowners. The firm gave the staff the time off to work on the project and supported this initiative by paying for the teams’ flights to South Africa. The remaining costs, such as building materials and the like, were covered by the fundraising, which came to over £40,000.

With the help of qualified local builders, the Freshfields teams managed to complete four houses on a site with space for 350 homes.

The building bug has spread. Next year it is the turn of the corporate and dispute resolution departments for a spell of manual labour.