Can you tell us about some of the biggest obstacles you have faced in your professional life – and how you have overcome them?
Running a business as well as working in it is a significant challenge.
The patent profession tends to attract academically minded scientists who tend to be good at methodically evaluating information. They have personalities and skill sets quite different from those of leaders that you find in most other businesses. Heading a business requires creativity, intuition and the ability to be decisive and pragmatic in unfamiliar situations. Many senior patent attorneys are not able to contribute to business vision at the level that would be expected of a similarly remunerated leader elsewhere. Some leave running the business to others and continue with client work. Others find their elevated status addictive, which is not always helpful.
I often question the status quo with a view to improving it and prefer to confront issues head on. It is now widely recognised in the work environment that groups of people (namely white males of a certain age) tend to be dismissive of other viewpoints, to the detriment of outsiders and business dynamism. However, exceptionally high margins exist in the profession as neither juniors nor clients have historically questioned the status quo. In the absence of a burning platform – and even with one – suggesting any change can be as heretical as commenting on the emperor’s clothing.
I sought general guidance from various leaders and experts I knew and respected on how best to grow an agile, modern business. They advised me to constantly reflect on the structure and people. I started a new firm with more than 25 years’ worth of knowledge and unconstrained by legacy premises, structures or people. I now have an entity that I believe offers patrons much better value and service by putting more of their fees into people carefully chosen for their expertise in roles in which they excel. Decisions are taken swiftly without misaligned individual stakeholder interests. I still have the daily challenge of balancing the running of the business with being an employee. Further, clients expect my personal insight into matters and these requests do not always crop up at a convenient time. However, I view this as a refreshing challenge, not an obstacle.
What are the biggest challenges facing your clients at present?
My patrons, surprisingly, seem to be facing fewer hurdles than in the past. This is most likely due to the fact that IK-IP is relatively new, so new service users have actively sought me out based on recommendations. Those who have chosen us, many having critically evaluated more traditional firms, are generally forward-looking problem solvers with a clear IP need, who are on my wavelength, so they see obstacles as part of doing business.
It is always hard to balance budget and uncertainty. However, putting intellectual property in the bigger context of business ups and downs and routinely helping clients to navigate difficult choices is precisely what we do. Anecdotally, other small firms are also seeing a surge in work. I can appreciate that things may have changed for firms that rely on established clients with significant historical prosecution budgets previously taken for granted.
Can you list the top three skills required of any top-level IP litigator or prosecutor?
Fundamentally, you need to understand the client’s business and think like a business owner – this applies both to prosecution and litigation. You must help them to judge what is valuable and proportionate in order to give good advice. Otherwise, you risk burning money on litigation or growing a portfolio that will ultimately not serve the client, even if it is done well. Reputable, established outfits are known to claim that it is their role to execute a client’s instructions competently, but business strategy is the service user’s issue. However, there are many small decisions in every complex issue and your client cannot be expected to understand the nuances of these as well as you, so unless you join with them as pilot and co-pilot they will be at a disadvantage. When you see that company X spent many millions on historically established reputable practice Y, yet it lost to smaller company P with only a small team led by trusted individual counsel Q, with a bill a fraction the size, this may be why. Of course, the facts may be part of the story, but the question remains whether the losing entity considered the outcome good value and fully appreciated where it was heading.
You need to be really comfortable understanding the technology and ideally have the same passion for it as the client. Then you can instinctively ask the right awkward, obscure questions and see looming practical issues that the client did not think to mention before they surface – when it is too late to react effectively.
Finally, you need an almost unhealthy desire to win. When you have worked out the best course of action, you should pursue it with a zeal to prevail, not just another day at the office where you are getting paid by the hour regardless of the outcome.
Looking back, what are some of the biggest changes that you have seen in European patent litigation over the course of your career?
Patent litigation has grown in scope and (even with the United Kingdom out of the Unified Patent Court (UPC)) Europe is going to become more of an IP battlefield, like the United States. The appreciation of the business value of intellectual property has grown and entities are more aware of the need to take it seriously. They also increasingly appreciate the important strategic counterpart of oppositions, which is something that consumes much of my time.
How do you ensure that highly technical concepts are made clear and accessible for key stakeholders and judges?
I like to have compelling and hopefully fun ideas, concepts and stories behind everything. Understanding why something technically complex is different from something else similar is insufficient. I always want to appreciate in simple terms why this subtle difference makes the whole thing interesting and hence why a patent application was worth filing in the first place. If I cannot concisely and casually tell my paralegal why what we are doing for a client is cool, I keep digging. This extends to the initial drafting of applications, which must tell a compelling story: this is why I do not believe that applications should just be passed down to trainees.
What can the United Kingdom learn from other key jurisdictions to create a more globally competitive patent system?
The United Kingdom does well in general, the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) is reasonably responsive and the courts have specialist judges. However, the approach to software is unhelpful and discourages UK companies from filing; I have several clients where we go straight to the United States and the EPO. There are signs that the UKIPO may be opening its approach to machine learning. If it gave more of the benefit of doubt to applicants in this area, it would serve the country well.
What led you to found your own firm and what advice to you have for anyone else considering taking a similar step?
My advice is do it! Others have branched out recently, united by a desire to do well by their clientele. I have not heard anyone say that they regret their decision. It is good to have more choice and for the IP profession to evolve.
I had felt for some time that there was scope to do better. While I enjoyed the early journey of growing a small historical firm, I began to perceive a lack of shared vision, values or insight and increasingly saw things that I considered outdated and blinkered, or worse. I like to have open dialogue and involve the people most likely to contribute to rapid progress rather than be unduly constrained by status, process and hierarchy. Becoming seriously ill from covid-19 in March 2020 and then working remotely reminded me of how much I enjoyed achieving great things directly for clients and how little patience I had for internal meetings whose purpose and outcome and contribution of participants frequently eluded me.
Someone astutely observed that if you look at how many people are employed in a large firm, what they actually do and where client money goes compared to what a client actually really wants, it is astonishing. It is an ailment that many organisations grow out of touch with what made them good in the first place. I would be very happy to help anyone setting up with practical tips and I am sure others would be too.
How is Brexit affecting the United Kingdon’s attractiveness as a venue for patent litigation?
It remains to be seen how dropping out of the UPC will affect things. Not being a party to the EUIPO any more may also have an impact on perceptions of the United Kingdom as central to Europe. The pandemic has masked the initial aftershock of Brexit. Brexit may have a negative effect, but since the importance of intellectual property in general is growing and the duplication will also create its own need (not necessarily helpful to business), the result may not immediately be dramatic.
What are some of the main differences between patent prosecution before the USPTO and the EPO that rights holders need to be aware of?
The approach to certain technologies (software, medical device technology in particular) is quite different and applications must be drafted carefully to do well in Europe and avoid dreaded added matter later. European prosecution benefits from having seasoned people getting to grips with a case early on and speaking to examiners by telephone sometimes, rather than having juniors churning through written responses. The EPO is moving this way to speed progress for applicants, though some are resisting change as it requires more nimble firms to respond.
How has your management style evolved over your career – particularly over the past year of remote working?
I have always believed that people should choose to work with me because there is mutual respect and we both enjoy doing good work, contributing our respective skills in an equitable way, and I give and invite open and blunt feedback. Not everyone likes that approach, but that’s fine. I do not want people to do something that they do not positively believe in merely because they have a big mortgage and a long contract. This has not changed.
However, I have grown to appreciate that academic abilities do not closely correlate to the skills required to run a business. Alas, common sense is not that common, and I have been frankly surprised by the importance that some ascribe to rank rather than quality of ideas, along with the lack of core values that I take for granted. Or – as a client said more succinctly – “it is a terrible idea to let many patent attorneys try to run a business”. As a result, I have learned to assume less.
In terms of remote working, if you are collaborating with the right person who understands what you are trying to achieve, then you can get more done in a short video call than in multiple face-to-face meetings with someone who does not get it or has another agenda. I have built a great team remotely by looking actively to be diverse, inclusive and creative in finding people with the right skills and attitude. This has been refreshing. Recently I had a very enjoyable dinner with a colleague with whom I had been working exclusively remotely for many months – it was great to have a chance to relax and discuss things other than immediate work and we resolved to do so again soon but working remotely had really not inhibited us working as an effective team previously. The people and personalities are far more important than the place.
Founder and CEO [email protected]
Ilya Kazi founded IK-IP Ltd in 2021 after 29 years’ experience in private practice, the majority as a senior partner. He has a master’s in natural sciences from Cambridge University, is a European and UK patent attorney and a qualified litigator. He has extensive experience ranging from start-ups to multinationals and from filing and strategy through portfolio management to opposition and litigation across a wide range of technologies.