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A Digitally Optimised Legal Department

Matt Fawcett, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Chief Compliance Officer handles legal affairs worldwide at NetApp. Under his leadership, NetApp’s digitally optimized legal department has earned several innovation awards. Elevate’s Chairman and CEO,…

The Executive Responsibility to Innovate

Matt Fawcett, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Chief Compliance Officer handles legal affairs worldwide at NetApp. Under his leadership, NetApp’s digitally optimized legal department has earned several innovation awards. Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, and Matt cover the concept of digital work, the burnout some are experiencing as digital workers, and transitioning from lawyer to lawyer leader to business leader.

Matt said – “Every Lawyer would do themselves a huge favor if they just learn how to read and understand financials.”

Matt elaborates on how a Law department is changing, the executive team’s responsibility to innovate, and explained why a Lawyer needs to have the technical knowledge to be successful in this digital world.

Click on the links below to hear what we covered in this episode:

  • [01:06] – How Matt has found career satisfaction through a series of missteps.
  • [03:02] – Mission Explained – NetApp made a massive transition and transformation to continue to be a dynamic, growing company.
  • [08:28] – How is NetApp’s legal department responding during this critical time?
  • [12:36] – Is leaning into digital work blurring our lives?
  • [14:48] – How is NetApp embracing collaboration through modern digital working?
  • [17:55] – Why are GCs migrating into leadership roles?
  • [20:14] – Matt advises young Lawyers – things that a Lawyer should learn.
  • [24:47] – A book at leadership that influenced Matt Fawcett.
  • [26:15] – “Leadership in tough times requires…”


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Podcast Transcript

Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved.  We strongly encourage our listeners to listen to the audio.


Nicole: Hello, listeners. This is Nicole Giantonio, the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you are about to hear is the fourth episode in our Next Normal Leadership series, featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with the General Counsel from leading organizations, law firm managing partners, and law company CEOs about leading during this time of change. Today’s guest is Matt Fawcett, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary at NetApp. NetApp specializes in helping customers get the most out of their data, offering industry-leading Cloud Data Services, Storage Systems, and Software.

This conversation between Liam and Matt covers the concept of digital work, the burnout some are experiencing as digital workers, and transitioning from lawyer to lawyer leader, to business leader.

Liam: Matt, thank you for joining this conversation. I’m looking forward to talking with you today about Leadership in Law. Why don’t we start off with getting to know you? What was the arc of your career or your life that led you to the role that you have today?

Matt: Maybe it could be best described as a series of missteps on a path towards, hopefully, finding career satisfaction. What I mean by that is, probably as early as high school, I had decided that I’d like to go to law school.  I made that decision naively and in a vacuum of thinking going to school is fun, and being a lawyer is going to be a nice, stable, conventional career. And it turned out to be.  While going to school was indeed fun, everything after that was quite different. I figured that if you go to law school, then when you become a lawyer, you become a litigator because that was the image that I had. I didn’t have lawyers in my family. I just made assumptions based on popular media.

I became a litigator at the start of my career and realized I’d made a big mistake because that wasn’t particularly fulfilling for me. Then at one point, I thought I wanted to be an environmental lawyer, and in fact, I worked for the Sierra Club for a while and found that practice to be terrible. Although I believed in the mission, the practice was unfulfilling. I did a stint as a Deputy District Attorney because I thought, well, I don’t want to be a litigator, maybe I want to be a trial lawyer. And I hated doing trials, and I wasn’t very good at it. So long story short, it took a lot of fumbling to ultimately get to a place where I feel like I have the greatest job in the world, and I love my job.  Coincidentally, as we’re recording this, tomorrow is my ten-year anniversary at NetApp. I never started a job thinking I’d be at it for ten years, but as I hit that ten-year mark tomorrow, I’m enthusiastic and excited about our company, about our team, and about our mission. I’ve got nothing but passion and energy looking towards the next ten years.

Liam: Can you talk about the mission of the company, and how has that impacted the development of the mission of the department that you lead, if it has a mission?  Not every General Counsel or every Law Department would claim to have a mission.  How has the mission changed over the 10 years, and how has the mission evolved?

Matt: Sure. I might actually answer it inversely. When I joined NetApp – we’re in the Data Storage and Data Management space – 10 years ago, ours was a very classic enterprise IT space and the company was doing extraordinarily well.  We were the upstart; we were a public company but growing 30% year over year, and taking share from little companies like IBM, and EMC, and Hitachi, and Hewlett Packard. In addition, this really fast-growing company was recognized the year I joined, as the best place to work in the United States. Ahead of Google.

Talk about a super exciting platform, for lack of a better word, but the Legal Department that was significantly behind the rest of the company. And in a very competitive interviewing process, I can remember stepping a little outside my own comfort zone and telling the CEO at the time, ‘NetApp deserves to have a world-class Legal Team, and from what I can tell, you don’t and that would be my mission’.  So when I stepped in, I had a very clear vision for what I wanted the department to look like. I didn’t frame it just as world-class, I framed it as – I want us to build the best legal department in the world.

The question is whether that is something that can be measured, we’ve tried to put metrics around what it would mean, both objective and subjective.  The goal galvanized our team, we went through a heck of a lot of change in the beginning.  Experiencing change at that time was easy in the context of where the company was at the time because the company was hitting on all cylinders. Now, the world changed. The classic enterprise IT market, as everyone knows, has been under incredible structural pressure through things like the cloud. With the emergence of Azure, GCP, and AWS, this once, very stable, very healthy, and always growing enterprise IT market has completely turned upside-down.  Our company has had to make a massive transition and transformation to continue to be a vibrant, growing company. And that’s what our mission has been for the last couple of years – how do we access and how do we help our customers and our partners take advantage of all the goodness of public clouds and hybrid cloud environments – leveraging our technology.

We are not finished with that mission, but we’re well down the path of being a major platform of storage-oriented software in all of the public clouds and on-prem. When it comes to the mission of the company, I think for me, frankly, the distributed working environment has underscored the importance of our mission and most companies nowadays would say the most important asset we have is data.

When you think about the challenges we have seen society face, with our health care systems, with our educational systems, with our political systems, with everything that makes our world normal and work. The inability reliably to store, manage, move, transfer, protect data is at the heart of a lot of the things that are making all of these institutions vulnerable. And NetApp is trying to solve that problem.   I think if we are successful in helping solve that problem for our customers, for all of these industries, in the public and private sector, we will have made the world a more resilient place for the inevitable next thing that’s going to happen.

When you think about the challenges, we have seen society face, with our health care systems, with our educational systems, with our political systems, with everything that makes our world normal and work. The inability reliably to store, manage, move, transfer, protect data is at the heart of a lot of the things that are making all of these institutions vulnerable. And NetApp is trying to solve that problem.

Matt Fawcett

It’s building resilience, frankly, for the health and safety of the world. To me, that’s an incredibly exciting mission, and our team has adapted to that mission. In light of all of that, we’ve adapted our mission, from not just being the world’s best legal department, but the most digitally optimized legal department in the world.   I firmly believe that the future of work, effective work, is going to look very little like what pre-COVID work looked like. There are a lot of problems to solve in figuring out how to build a digitally optimized team, but I’m investing a good amount of my time these days thinking about that and trying to build in structures and institutions that facilitate that.

Liam: I think you’ve seen something that I talk about, the acceleration of digital business, and you’ve been at the heart of that. It’s quite fascinating to hear that story, including the company going through a reinvention and sharpening its focus – being able to face an accelerating future has meant becoming an increasingly digital business. That has proven to be so vital beyond the company, as you say, digital business is going to be important to society. What I also think of as I consider digital law, in my own mind, I think about law in the core. Law is woven into the business.  The way you just described digital business and digital law, it seems to me that you have an aspiration to be the best legal department in the world – inside a digital business.

How do you design the people, the structures, the things that you measure, the priorities, the strategy, to be odd, ready for a time like this? Perhaps this is a bit too direct of a question, how has your team been able to respond to what’s really happened over the last couple of months?

Matt: A good and appropriate lead-in, Liam. I can answer the question a couple of ways. So, in part as you observed, we’ve constructed the team long before work from home and COVID, we had a philosophy that we wanted to have a highly geographically distributed team. Our team sits in 25 different offices. I think 14 countries now, and we often say we have lots of islands. We have a person in Japan, a person in Australia, a person in Hong Kong, a person in Iceland, so on and so forth around the globe. The rationale for that was, it’s more important that our people be close to the clients they serve.

As we made that strategic decision, that also meant we had to be very conscious about how we, as a team, would still feel like a team. Since we’re physically remote from each other, we would have to put more energy into how the legal team feels, how we create our identity, how we feel like a single team. I would say that because of that, we’ve learned how to pass the ball in the dark.

We spent a lot of time deliberately doing things like building trust and building teamwork, and practicing teamwork in a distributed world so when all of this craziness happened, and everyone suddenly traded in their office for their home office, our team, adjusted very, very well to continue to feel connected with each other. On a day to day basis, I think we are very well prepared for this. Certainly not intentionally, but we were well prepared. I’ll tell you the challenges, both the personal challenge and the department challenge I’m thinking about. The personal challenge is, about 30% of my time was spent on the road. I really valued that time. It’s an opportunity to go to our other offices, meeting with people on my team, meeting with other executives and business leaders in the company, meeting with customers and partners. This is the first time since I joined NetApp that I’ve spent so little time actually on an airplane, and I frankly miss it.

I don’t miss being on an airplane, I miss being in other places, and being around other people, and having that extra connection. That’s the personal challenge. The team challenge and I think this is probably true for lots of teams, legal or not, but especially for legal because of the nature of our work, is wellness and burnout. I’m probably not unique in this regard, but my observation is, in month five of this, we’re entering a new phase. In months one and two, the rug was pulled out from all of us, in every dimension of our life. People spent these first couples of weeks or months trying to catch their breath and see what it would be like.

The couple of months that followed up to maybe today, people said, hey, we can make this work. We can be productive. We can use Zoom and Teams, and we can find ways to keep work going. But what we’re seeing is, while most people, including myself, have traded three-hour commutes on a daily basis for three-foot commutes, we’ve layered all of that time with more work and more on top of that. We are very conscious of burnout and very conscious of the risk to employee wellness, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m sure there are people on my team who have been impacted by it. That’s a real concern.

We don’t have good solutions for that yet, but frankly, Liam, that’s part and parcel of what I am trying to solve by creating the most digitally optimized legal team in the world. Because it’s not about just pivoting our old ways of working into this new work from the home regime, it’s about reimagining the work that we do and how we do it, and feeling not that we are doing more with less, but we’re actually doing less, but we’re doing the right things. We’re not burning calories, burning our own intensity on things that could be either done a different way more easily through technology, which is a big one, or just not done at all.

And we don’t have the solution there. I think it’s going to be a lot of trial and error and seeing what works, that’s my big concern right now.

Liam: So, the concept of digital work – I think that as a leader, it’s important to help people move through the early phase of oh, I’m digitally working. I’m using these tools to do what I’ve already done, and wow, I can do this. But to your point, we’re no longer traveling, no longer having the mental start and end of work. The bit that is being a digital worker has started to really, in many cases, just blur, our lives are blurring. As a leader, what are the kinds of practices that you’re exploring?

I don’t know if anyone that has the answer to this, and even the people who are academics that research this, they’ve got some points of view. But what are the kinds of things that you are trying out, either with yourself, for your own personal wellness – because that’s the other thing. People forget that actually, we’re all human as well. For your own personal wellness, and also for your team what allows them to explore this being a digital worker and reimagining the way that they work?

Matt: You are exactly right. If there is a blueprint that would work, send it to me. But there’s not. In fact, some of the research that points out the importance of really leaning into digital work and digital workers also says there is no one size fits all. Each company will have to figure out how to solve this within the context of its business model, within the context of its culture, within the context of its resources, and all of those things. There is a self-discovery that has to happen. That said, there are good resources out there, and I try to access many of them.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at GitHubs’ remote manifesto, for example, and some other related materials around that. Lots of great ideas there. I keep a running checklist of the characteristics of a digitally optimized team versus a not optimized team. It doesn’t have a whole lot of lines to it, but I actually just added a line this morning before getting on the phone with you, which is, optimized is talent in place, versus not optimized, which is talent near the office. And so, in a sense of at least as a team, we’re talking a lot about what these things mean and what they imply.

For me, one of the biggest changes I’m trying to help bring to our department and to our company, frankly, is the notion of embracing asynchronous versus synchronous communication.

One of the biggest changes I’m trying to help bring to our department and to our company, frankly, is the notion of embracing asynchronous versus synchronous communication.


And that requires the ability to have tools and platforms that let multiple people access and contribute in the time that is best for them, as opposed to a traditional way and the way that I’m used to ever since I graduated in 1992, which is emails with attachments that you sequentially send along. We use a Microsoft platform, there are lots of different platforms for collaboration, but I’m forcing us to use this Microsoft platform for different things that historically we would do by email with attachments.

It doesn’t sound like the biggest change in the world, but I can tell you that lawyers aren’t always comfortable with change. And for a legal team that has grown up and matured using email, it can feel very uncomfortable.   Uncomfortable to try to learn something new because it is new, and it requires time. And it introduces another anxiety, is that geez, now you’re giving me yet another thing to have to be opening and working on. I can’t solve the first problem other than saying we have to learn new things. What I’d like to do to solve for that second problem to say, this isn’t about adding one more layer.

This is about replacing. Replace email with a collaboration platform. And so again, just as a simple example, I’ve set up some channels with each of my directors, and we’ve decided we are not going to email agendas for meetings to each other. We are going to post those agendas on the site, and it lets us both collaboratively fill out those agendas in real-time before the meeting. It’s new, but I’m really optimistic that those little steps are going to open everybody’s eyes towards, this is working, and it actually is reducing email load, and the more we can do this, the less email I’ll ever have to see. That’s one example of how we’re trying to embrace more modern ways of working together.

Liam: So much of this is in parallel – which will make you laugh because one of my big themes is the role of the General Counsel as a Business Executive. The problems you’re facing are the same problems I’m facing as the CEO of a company. I think about some of the things you talk about in moving from me-centric to we-centric. And you touched earlier on the importance of trust-building. I had a group collaborating just yesterday, and I asked us to collaborate on a document rather than email the document to each other. Well, there was – the fundamental question, but who else can see this? Do we really believe that it’s something that only the five of us can see? And that was an interesting conversation as a tech-forward organization. I was surprised. These are real things, aren’t they, that we have to lead people through?

Matt: Right. I really believe this is important, not just for our team but for our company. I think it’s vital. I set up our CEO staff team site, and I set up sub channels for things that are important, like the future of work diversity, inclusion, and belonging. A variety of things where I’m forcing the same with that team, what we call Team one, and with my team, which we call Team two. So you’re right. Speaking as not just the head of the legal department but as one of the business executives, I’m trying to force the same, embracing new modes of working.

Liam: I’ll bet you not many people have thought about the work that you’ve been doing, leading other executives.  Hey, we in our law department have developed some experience in a collaboration that we trust – even for sensitive, confidential topics.  I’m thinking that I almost can’t say this, that this sort of innovation for the future is coming out of the law department.

Matt: I’m probably not the only General Counsel that would say this, but there are certainly days where I’m sitting in a staff meeting with the other functional leaders, and I’m saying you guys are reaching a conclusion I already reached three years ago. Why don’t you just listen? In almost every company, there is a certain level of perceived and real independence for the General Counsel and the Legal Department. And that independence is important for the work we do. That’s one reason why I think traditionally, GCs haven’t always migrated into other leadership positions in the company.

But Liam, I think that’s changing. I think we’re seeing that change more and more. Some of my colleagues and friends who I respect immensely have taken on broader roles at their companies. In technology, there are examples of General Counsels who’ve been elevated to CEO roles. You see that in highly regulated industries. But I feel like – and all this is is a feeling, but I feel like there’s more of an appetite and acceptance for General Counsel who aspire to have larger roles in the company to actually be considered for those larger roles. It seems like the tide has shifted in some ways over the last year or two, and I think that’s good because my friends who have taken on bigger roles in their companies are doing an awesome job. And I think they’ll be the trailblazers for those of us who aspire to do the same.

Liam: I feel strongly that companies, talk about building diverse organizations, and then keep our Executives in boxes. John is the General Counsel, and they’re left in a box. Or James is the head of sales and marketing. The part of the social movement that’s happening in the world is opening all of our eyes to the stereotypes that we carry around in our heads – that we have about other people. So, I’m delighted to see this. I will tell you, though, your comment about why didn’t you just listen to me three years ago? Just so you know, if you ever do become a CEO, you will actually say that. I promise you that is something that doesn’t change.

In terms of how you would advise lawyers earlier in their career, and the skills and capabilities or perhaps even the career roles you would encourage, or what to have them look for in a mentor, or to volunteer for, perhaps informed by your own experience, both positive or negative. What would you say to someone who is 10 years, 20 years, earlier in their career, now, about what things they should be leaning into?

Matt: Good question. I think about a lot and get asked about a lot, and I wish I had the perfect answer. But there’re a lot of different things, and if I went back, speaking for myself if I could go back 20 years, what would I do differently knowing now where I think my passions lie and where I think I can be successful? I think every lawyer would do themselves a huge favor if they just learn how to read and understand financials. That’s a basic skill set that you just have to have, especially if you want to work inside a company. You have to be able to speak that language. And that’s part one.

I also think that, at least when I was graduating and when I was starting in a big firm, the guidance given to us young lawyers is, just focus on being the best lawyer you can be. Be an excellent technical lawyer. And I think you need to be an excellent technical lawyer to be successful, but if you are not thinking about building your network – and we can talk about what that means. But if you’re not thinking about building a diverse network of people, both other lawyers but more importantly, people outside the Law, then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Because you’ll get to a point in your career where you want to change jobs, or you want to pitch a client. And there will be people who’ve invested in getting a broader skillset beyond the technical skillset, and I think, almost always they’re going to win that battle. There’s no question that NetApp didn’t hire me because I’m the most technically gifted lawyer. I am clearly not. And I know that there were other people who were candidates for that role who were better technical lawyers, and who had more experience and had other dimensions to them. It was just a good fit. Part of that good fit was, that I brought a lot of other ideas and creativity into that role. So, start to reach out, and learn the language that you’re clients speak, understand the challenges that they face.

Try to be truly empathetic to what your clients are dealing with, whether they’re internal corporate clients or external clients. It took me a long time to learn that. And I’d love for younger lawyers to spend more time there.

Liam: I think having someone, a mentor, or leader, in some cases there to push young lawyers beyond their technical skills and to do things that they don’t yet the value is important. When I start to feel that – my business colleagues are making requests, that feel like demands, then that’s a signal that I need to actually step out of my CEO shoes to step into the shoes of my business colleagues and look at things from their perspective.

Matt: That resonates really powerfully with me, Liam, and it just brought back a memory from pretty early on in my in-house days, as I had migrated away from private practice. And it was around the negotiation of a fairly complicated commercial agreement with a big customer.  It involved our salespeople and our operational people, and it involved me negotiating. I was taking the, probably intellectually correct hard line on certain things, and friction was mounting. And it was mounting not only with the customer, but it was also mounted with the team that was negotiating it, and I was the cause of it.

And the head of sales, the Senior Vice President, just pulled me aside and said, hey Matt, I’m not objecting to the outcome you’re trying to get to, but you need to understand, you’re getting pissed at someone on my team who’s the ability to support his family is dependent on getting this done. So try to have some appreciation for that. That’s not a reason to back off of positions that are important but understand the dynamic outside the intellectual battle over terms and conditions. And it was really a gift. That was a gift to me. He didn’t even have to do that. He could’ve just said, pipe down. And that’s a place where again, young lawyers – at least when I was a young lawyer, we weren’t encouraged, and we frankly didn’t get a lot of exposure to those kinds of situations. We produced work, and we sent it out. It was hard to see the whole context. So I would say that that’s quite important.

Liam: I have two questions, the last two questions, I’ll ask. And I’ll tell you what the questions are in advance.  I’m going to ask you to finish a sentence, and then I’ll tell you the second question.  I’m going to ask you to finish the sentence, “Leadership in tough times requires…” Now, don’t answer it for a minute. Just let that be playing in the back of your head because I’m going to ask you an easier question. What’s a book on leadership that informed that you’ve embraced some ideas from, or you’d recommend?

Matt: You probably know the answer to that one, Liam, because we talk about it a lot. And it’s Team of Teams. It’s not the only book, and if you’ve seen my bookshelves, they are overflowing. I’m a huge consumer of leadership books. I have a passion for that. But Team of Teams is by General McChrystal, and it has to do with his time running the JSOC, Joint Special Operating Unit, dealing with the challenges we have in the Middle East in combating terrorism. The theme is around rethinking traditional organizational structures to deliver results in an ambiguous world.

And it’s not, again, a blueprint, but it contained a lot of ideas that I still implement in the way I think we need to approach the work we do at NetApp. And if you’d give me a chance to put one other in there, because I come back to it quite a bit, Marshall Goldsmith, who belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of leadership thinking, wrote a book that I think is called, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. And it’s a simple premise, all of the skills and resources and achievements you have that got you to the place you are today, are not going to be the things that get you to that next level – if you aspire to that next level.

You have to continuously grow, and you have to remain curious and thoughtful, and consume, and I believe it.   It’s been true for me and my career, and I think any ambitious person should read that book.

Liam: So, hopefully, your mind has been processing the answer to this question – ” Leadership in tough times requires…”

Matt: Caring, empathy, and intensity.

Liam: I feel like I have to ask you to explain that, and then we’ll close.

Matt:  Sure. At the heart of every company, no matter what type of industry you’re in, there are people. Building the trust that people need to have in each other requires a level of caring. I forget who said it, but the best way to show people that you care is to actually care. I want to know that my colleagues care about me, and I hope my colleagues feel I care about them. That’s the fundamentals. To enable some of that caring, you have to have empathy. I think it’s important to understand, especially now, as we are reawakened around some really important social justice issues that all companies need to really try to solve.

We have to open up that empathy lens a lot wider and really hear people and understand people where they are.   I think those two go hand in hand, they are different, but one will reinforce the other. And lastly, intensity. It’s hard right now. There is five times more work than can physically be done. Leaders need to lead by example in this regard. And I don’t think we’re going to get through this world sitting, waiting, and hoping. I think there has to be a ton of energy and intensity dedicated towards helping our teams manage through a very cloudy ambiguous time, and coming out successfully.

Liam: Matt, thank you very much. Fascinating conversation about leadership in law, and I hope actually, beyond the law.

Matt: My pleasure, Liam. Thanks for including me, and it’s always great to talk to you.

About the Author(s)

Matt Fawcett is Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Chief Compliance Officer at NetApp. This interview was conducted by Liam Brown, Chairman, and CEO of Elevate.

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