NetApp Legal Team Races Ahead: Playing a key role in achieving the company’s business goals

Thursday, August 25, 2016 - 12:44

For NetApp Inc.’s legal department, the autobahn isn’t just a ribbon of pavement slicing through the German countryside. In symbolic terms at least, it’s the route to the future.

Three years ago, the Silicon Valley data management giant adopted the idea of using the autobahn to describe its legal department strategy. Like the famed European highway, the NetApp Autobahn emphasizes speed, efficiency and meticulous engineering, while evoking themes of international scope and destination.

NetApp even had an artist create a cartoon to give the legal team a visual illustration of the autobahn concept. In it, a racecar zips down an open highway. A thought bubble over the driver’s seat reads, “Farther! Faster!” And the legal department’s most important  goals are literally and figuratively ebedded into the road and sky around the vehicle.

The cartoon, which is updated annually, may be a fun and unconventional way to help lawyers and legal staff members conceptualize and convey a strategy. But its intent is no joke. As Matthew Fawcett, NetApp’s general counsel, says: “The Autobahn is essentially a multiyear strategy to help us confidently say we can be the best legal department in the world.”

Becoming a world leader in legal department innovation has been one of Fawcett’s primary aspirations since he joined NetApp in 2010. In the years since, he’s built a department renowned for its ability to measure the performance of its in-house and outside counsel, its embrace of technology, and its emphasis on cost management and internal and external customer satisfaction. (The innovations extend to legal tactics as well: NetApp’s lawyers have a reputation for being some of the toughest and most creative in terms of protecting the company’s intellectual property portfolio from so-called patent trolls.)

The racecar, to borrow the autobahn metaphor, runs on a mix of metrics, rigor and talent, as well as critical support from the company’s senior management team. Fawcett and Co. haven’t simply thrown money at their problems, hoping they can buy their way out of cultural issues with a piece of software or by rearranging the management structure. They’ve carefully crafted a unique vision of what the legal department should be and have worked hard to get buy-in from everyone on the team.

Hiring the right people helps. Fawcett’s first move as GC was to bring on Connie Brenton, a veteran legal operations expert, to serve as the department’s chief of staff and director of legal operations. Fawcett says, “Connie asked me in her first interview, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ I want to build the best legal department in the world. That’s what we’ve been pursuing.”

Brenton has become Fawcett’s not-so-secret weapon in that cause, an industry leader in evaluating legal technology and employing the most effective vendors. She has helped engineer NetApp’s aggressive moves from a more traditional legal department to a metrics-and-tech-driven approach. When she started, the department was using three technologies. Now it’s using 21, with systems tracking everything from workflow to contractors to compliance issues. “We measure everything,” Brenton says.

Technology is one thing. Getting humans to embrace a strategy is another. NetApp’s legal team has 70 employees, about half of whom are lawyers. Some are based at the company’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, but many are in offices around the globe. After joining the company and laying out his vision, Fawcett embarked upon what he calls a “hearts and minds” tour, traveling around the world to meet one-on-one with business leaders and other employees and to capture ideas, change expectations and create a new mind-set in the organization.

With Brenton’s guidance, the department also built “learning circles” of lawyers and staff to create a feedback loop, improve communication and address specific operational issues. “These are grassroots ways to get feedback from everyone in the department,” Brenton says. “Each has a champion on the team, and each is geographically diverse.”

The team meetings have helped give lawyers and staff a way to participate directly in designing the legal department’s operating model. “It’s really about our organization,” Fawcett says.

And the department’s lawyers and staff are essential in helping nurture the Autobahn concept. The Autobahn strategy and the accompanying visuals are updated with new goals every year. First, the leadership team meets to discuss and propose strategic priorities. The visual is updated by the artist. Then the learning circles take over, providing feedback. Finally, the Autobahn strategy is modified to accommodate the feedback.

“Visuals are more effective than words,” Brenton said. “We roll them out through the learning circles, and we get input and participation. It’s an important part of change management, and it gives everyone a voice in an ownership of our destiny.”

The emphasis on building a unified and innovative culture extends not only to NetApp employees, but to service providers as well. The department, for instance, partners with an outsourcing company to provide additional legal firepower. “These are not just back-end contract summarizers,” Fawcett says. “They have a direct relationship and access to our clients.” Fawcett said a business client shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are dealing with a NetApp employee or the member of an extended virtual team. The experience should be seamless.

Brenton adds that the outsourced group includes a full range of talent, from an India-based support team to lawyers with 20-plus years of experience. “We integrate them into our teams. They are members of our learning circles,” Brenton says. “We consider them very much a part of our teams.”

The Autobahn concept supports not only collaboration inside the department, but across the company as well. The strategy is aligned with corporate goals and reflects transformation issues that the overall business is experiencing. This year, for instance, the plan includes three key objectives for the team: “Enable speed and simplicity,” “bust silos and build bridges” and “we are all in sales.”

In other words, each goal speaks to the legal department’s larger role in the company. The lawyers are not simply risk managers working on particular legal problems but also key actors who can help the business achieve its larger goals. They are uniquely positioned to work across corporate boundaries, and Fawcett says that the legal team has the chance to become the “connective tissue” that binds other departments together.

While an array of metrics help the NetApp legal team judge their performance, Fawcett says a simpler measure may be the ultimate arbiter of success: Do other NetApp employees want us to be part of their operating model?“When people ask how we measure success, I answer: ‘Is your phone ringing?’ ” Fawcett says. “When the company is creating structures to move forward, are people reaching out to our team because we help get things done for the company? Or are they just reaching out to us for legal advice?”

Given the NetApp legal team’s track record in creating and executing innovative strategies, it’s hard to imagine that their phones aren’t ringing off the hooks.

Lloyd M. Johnson Jr. is chief executive of Chief Legal Executive LLC, a company that brings together thought leaders in the legal industry to discuss critical issues at conferences and events.

You can reach the author at lloydj@chieflegalexec.com with questions about the article.