by Ivan B. Ahlert
June 08, 2020
Piloting patents – applying lessons from a private pilot perspective
Ivan Ahlert, vice-president of FICPI, partner of Dannemann Siemsen, Brazil
I initiated my career as a patent attorney in 1981, in a world in which my essential working tools were pen, paper, telephone and a telex machine. A modern electric typewriting machine appeared on my desk a couple of years later, and a fax machine after that. Except for occasional last-minute orders arriving in long strips of paper out of the telex machine, communications were slow. Letters were first handwritten or dictated by a patent attorney, then a secretary would prepare a first draft, and the attorney would revise and correct or supplement the letter, which would then be retyped before placing it in an envelope, stamping and dispatching it by airmail to the client. For the generation just before my own, “airmail” probably meant using a zeppelin.
This all meant that we had proper time to prepare a communication, and because exchanges were very slow, we took greater care to send as complete and clear instructions as possible. I remember when things started speeding up with fax machines. Once our secretary sent a telex asking if a client had a fax machine, and the response was simply “yes, we have”. Second telex from us: “Great to know you have one. Could you please let us know your fax number?”
Flash forward to 2020, and the panorama is completely different. Electronic communications are fast! While we celebrate that this leads to an increase in the amount of services that we are able to provide, it also brings an expectation that everyone will react to an electronic message as if the person were also a computer. And many people try to act just like that, shooting out quick orders and receiving back quick acknowledgments.
Having obtained my private pilot license at the age of 50, I realised that aviation provides valuable insights that I can apply to my IP business.
The first thing a pilot learns is the importance of a strict discipline. In aviation, if you do the wrong thing at the wrong moment, you may not have a second chance to make it right! One of my teachers in the preparatory theoretical course liked to repeat that “This is how you do it. If you don’t do it this way, you die.” Plain and simple. In IP, there are certain deadlines (talk about “dead line”!), and formalities where if you fail to comply and do it right first time, you may not have a second chance, with dire consequences for your client and for you.
Strict discipline is the overarching attitude, that needs to be broken down into effective procedures for the different stages of a flight.
Workflows/checklists: Before a flight, a pilot will check the weather conditions and prepare a flight plan, that has to be filed with flight control in advance of the flight. Before taking off, the airplane must be fuelled, and the pilot must complete an external visual inspection and an instruments and overall inspection following a checklist (fuel pressure, oil pressure, radio settings, navigational instruments etc.). Use of a checklist is recommended even when the pilot knows (or thinks he knows) all the steps to be followed. Even with a checklist I managed once to overlook one essential step! Checklists are a must in the IP profession too, which can be applied by automated workflows. Every experienced employee likes to think that he/she knows it all and does not need a checklist to execute properly his/her tasks. In the past, we realised that often each employee had developed his/her own way of dealing with tasks, sometimes using shortcuts to simplify their work, which however could lead to an increased risk of making mistakes.
Confirming instructions: Communications with air control (AC) require that the pilot reads back the instructions he just received. AC: “Delta Victor Echo, you are cleared for take-off”; Me: “Delta Victor Echo, cleared for take-off”. A similar attitude is applied in the cabin. When the pilot wishes the copilot to take over, he announces “You have control”, and the copilot confirms “I have control”, and only then can the pilot consider himself relieved from command. In exchanging instructions with a client, the same concept applies: be clear as to what you wish your client to tell you or to send you, or repeat back to your client what you understood he wishes you to do. Many years ago, when we received an order from a client for entering a PCT national phase application or requesting examination of a patent application, we would send a general confirmation of receipt. Nowadays, we repeat back the basic content of the instructions, for instance listing the number of the International PCT application, the priority date, the time limit, the number of claims etc. More than once a client was able to correct a piece of information that was inaccurate either in his original order or in our transcription. FICPI’s Professional Excellence Commission (PEC) has published Guidelines for Communications between IP Firms with good hints for clear communications, as available in FICPI’s website: https://ficpi.org/library/ip-practice-management-guides
Planning ahead: Yet another lesson is “stay ahead of your airplane”, that is, plan ahead and be ready for the next steps. Once I entered the downwind leg at 140 knots (kts), whereas I should have been at 100 kts. There are no brakes in a small airplane to step on, and I had a hard time getting ready to turn into the base leg just ahead of me at proper 90 kts. The same applies to our daily practice. There is no reason to wait for a foreseeable event to happen in order to take proper measures, such as if your national IP office has announced that new regulations or procedures will apply in the near future, or if your client tells you that he/she expects you to change your procedures within a certain time, start preparations at once to allow yourself proper time to ensure that you are ready for the changes to come.
Flying by instruments: This is the technique that comes to my mind in times of Covid-19. IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules, are largely used in commercial aviation, as opposed to VFR, Visual Flight Rules. It is especially useful for a pilot when he/she has no visual references from outside to look at. I flew in actual instrument meteorological conditions just a handful of times during my training, and it is far from intuitive to surrender any attempt to see your surroundings and fully trust what your instruments are telling you. When many of us are managing our firms from home, we need excellent individual and overall performance indicators that we can trust as much as a pilot trusts his/her instruments when flying blindly through the clouds. Although most firms already had performance indicators before the crisis, it may be appropriate to assess whether the indicators that already exist are enough to provide an accurate picture of how each member of your staff is performing, even if overall results are still satisfactory.
Communicating problems clearly: Finally, if despite all the proper preparation and piloting something vital fails, pilots shout “mayday mayday mayday” to the air controller, as an unequivocal message that something is very wrong and that there is an impending great danger. In your daily practice, be clear with your partners and with your client if something goes wrong and seek their support and advice for a proper solution.
In times of Covid-19, having established the proper discipline, standards for procedures and communications, automation and deadline controls is more than ever of essence. Be a good pilot of your firm, of your cases, and to your clients, enjoy your flight, and have a safe landing … always!
 Also a tribute to my fellow pilot colleagues Philip Coyle, Andre Werner, Louis van der Walt, Klaus Roitto, and to the unkown pilots in our Federation.