11 August 2008

Who Knows Where the Timesheets Go?

The first page of the weekend FT to which I turn is invariably the back page of the Arts and Life section. Indeed, a large part of what I enjoy in the paper is in that section (most of the rest in the magazine, except of course Mike Southon's column) although its approach to art is too often from a purely financial angle and what it says about life is not usually about life as I know it. But Harry Eyres always strikes a note that resonates with me.

This week he discoursed on the derivation of the Greek word for summer, kalokairi. Kalos I knew, indirectly, from the irresistible impetus I inherited from my father to speak a few words in the language of any country I visit. Kalispera and kalimera (but not kalimares) are essential components of my Greek vocabulary, although I can't necessarily get the the right way round (so out running early one morning in Crete I wished a passing old lady good evening, which she corrected for me). The same instinct to try out foreign languages left me more recently floundering to find the right German words to tell my taxi driver, a "Persian" (his word) who had been in Berlin since the late seventies, that one of my daughters had a school friend whose father had also left Iran (or perhaps Persia) at that time, and also drove a taxi. But it failed to come into operation at all when I went to Istanbul a couple of years ago.

So the first part of kalokairi means fine or beautiful (so, more than merely "good" - I suppose they do have beautiful mornings in Greece, and in England we don't need a word to convey the same phenomenon). The second part is from kairos, meaning time, but not ordinary time, which is chronos: kairos is, as Mr Eyres explains, "the proper time, the unique, unrepeatable, propitious moment, as opposed to ... that other, deadly kind of time which grinds on relentlessly, linear, unstoppable, consuming all things." Or, to relate it to my recent work experiences, it's the satisfaction of finding a small but important point of law (the action for groundless threats relating to Community unregistered design right), the carefully-written letter, the well-received presentation, the runs in the Royal Parks, the regatta, the time spent with friends, rather than the stuff that I had to record with a view to selling it to clients. It epitomises what I don't like about practising law, summed up by Tony when he referred to that wonderful song that Sandy Denny might have written had she been a lawyer rather than a nurse before her musical career.

Clients are expected to pay for chronos, and indeed usually expect that this is what they will receive a bill for. But chronos almost by definition isn't worth a great deal. It's time spent running anti-money-laundering checks, going through "matter inception" processes, doing some low-grade drafting on the basis of a precedent written by someone with a shaky grip on the English language but published by a company whose prestige enables the user to rebut any argument that he or she failed to exercise due care in their choice of starting point at least. It's the time devoted to composing letters or emails, starting with the so-called client care letter (more accurately, partner care letter) and other communications necessary to minimise exposure to risk, then at the end of the process writing a bill for X hours of chronos at £390 per hour.

Sometimes, I suppose, there is no alternative to selling chronos. It's all a client wants, because it gives the client what it needs - which is not the chronos, of course, but the agreement, or the letter of advice, or to be brutal the indirect benefit of the lawyer's insurance. The trick then is to ensure that the charge for the chronos is aligned with the benefit to the client. My chronos is worth what a client is prepared to pay for it, and a fixed rate - even if it is deviated from regularly - is not an ideal way to express that, but perhaps it is the best available. I would much prefer to sell kairos to my clients, but I have an idea that if I tried to charge them thousands of pounds for an hour's kairos, even if I had given them many hours of chronos without charge, they would not be particularly receptive.

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