Legal team learns a timeless lesson

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Sometimes when you intend to teach, you end up learning.

A team from the law firm of Foley & Mansfield in Ferndale spent a week in Durazno, Guatemala, at the end of January. They built smokeless stoves in the homes of villagers to replace open fire pits and taught the villagers to make their own. They constructed 10 stoves and left enough materials for the villagers to construct 30 more. The trip was partially funded by the Foley & Mansfield Foundation.

The remote mountain village of Durazno, at nearly 6,000 feet elevation, is about 40 miles from the larger community of San Martin. The 75 families who live there primarily grow corn and coffee beans.

Calli Duncan, a partner with Foley & Mansfield, is a former stockbroker who practices primarily in the areas of product liability, tort litigation, employment law, and general liability.

Her colleague, Jana Berger, is a partner with the firm whose practice involves representation and defense in product liability, premises liability, coverage disputes, construction defect, general civil, and toxic tort litigation.

The Guatemala effort included masons, who showed everyone how to build the stoves, with Foley & Mansfield staffers and villagers shoulder to shoulder doing the actual work.

“We were sifting dirt and mixing the cement,” Duncan said. “Each group had a mason, which was one of the reasons we needed the interpreter, because the masons didn’t speak English. They were telling us what to do — how to stack and mix and the rest — and at one point our hostess, Maria, went outside and called in all the boys. They ranged in age from 11 or 12 to maybe 17.

We’re working and, all of the sudden, these boys come in and we kind of got nudged aside. We realized that this was a valuable opportunity for these young villagers to learn a trade. Our job at that point was to step back and let the boys learn how to lay brick.”

The Foley staffers expected to give their time and efforts, but were surprised at how much they got in return.

“The idea of helping was very appealing to me,” Duncan said. “By the time we left, they were thanking us and we were thanking them. I thought I would come back with the good feeling of having helped somebody. I came back with the feeling of having been helped myself.” 

Berger was quick to second the motion.“The most surprising thing was coming back feeling, ‘I didn’t just help them, they did something for me.’”

While in Guatemala, the absence of routines and comforts that were usually taken for granted was strongly felt. Especially first thing in the morning.

“We realized that ‘every day is going to be a bad hair day’ and just went with it” Berger said. “One morning my fiancé, Brian, woke up and saw me putting mascara on and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It was dawn and I hadn’t had my usual 20-minute shower with my bubbly Olay soap and my face cleanser. I said, through gritted teeth, ‘This is all I got right now, okay?’”

Both Duncan and Berger emphasized the team-building aspects of the trip and how it forged stronger bonds among the members of the firm who participated. They agreed that the bonding extended to staffers from F&M locations across the country.

“We had people from six different offices,” Duncan said. “Not just attorneys. It was open to everybody and everybody participated. We had clerks, IT people … all the office functions were represented. One of the accounting guys from the Minnesota office I communicate with online almost every day, but had never met. So there we are in Guatemala and I get to say, ‘Rick! So nice
to meet you in person!’ The result was the coolest team-building experience that you could possibly have.”

It certainly worked with Duncan and Berger, to the extent that they occasionally “tag-team” their descriptions of the trip and finish each other’s sentences. Here they are describing the need for the new smokeless stoves:

Berger: “It reminded me of sitting at a campfire and having it blow on you …”

Duncan:  “… except you’re in an enclosed space. Eyes watering, coughing …”

Berger: “… and they would just keep right on cooking. I couldn’t understand how they could be used to it. And not only the smoke, but the open flame. You had babies tripping right next to it …”

Perhaps the biggest impression the staffers brought back with them was the overwhelming generosity of the Guatemalan villagers, despite their poverty.

“They have so little, and yet they were so generous with us,” Duncan said. “What they had, they shared with us. It was an experience that’s very difficult to put into words.”