UPFRONT & PERSONAL: A Talk with NetApp GC Matt Fawcett

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Upfront & Personal

Today we continue our new feature on the Legal Executive Institute blog, “Upfront & Personal”, a column that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with of some the most influential members of the legal community. The column is created and written by Rose Ors.

Matt Fawcett, General Counsel at NetApp, recently spoke with Rose Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about personal fulfillment and the best advice he’s ever received.

Rose Ors: What have been the most significant moments in your career?

Matt Fawcett: For me, significant moments usually take the form of mistakes I have made, because they represent pivot points in my career, or at least lessons that I try not to repeat. For example, an early mistake was my overly narrow view of what lawyers did. I simply assumed that lawyers tried cases, and though clearly wrong, it nonetheless set the course of my early career direction.

Rose Ors: What other misconceptions did you have?

Matt Fawcett: I’ve always been a big outdoors person and environmentalist. Early in my career I wanted to combine my legal skills with my love for the environment. So, I worked briefly for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. I imagined myself going to Yosemite and hugging trees. But that job was entirely about paper-intensive litigation against the government — basically using the process to keep the government frozen. It’s a noble cause, but the process of doing it was unfulfilling for me, and I was really bad at it.

Another mistake I made, again in pursuit of being a trial lawyer, was with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office as an assistant district attorney for a brief sting. I did get to fulfill the goal of doing trials. I got to pick juries. I got to call witnesses. I got to make opening and closing arguments. And it was all incredibly unfulfilling for me. I remember thinking at the time, “Now what?”

These career mistakes were hard to go through at the time, but in hindsight, I’ve been fortunate to be able to make choices early in my career that I thought would be satisfying and finding out they were not. The journey was not always easy, but it led me to the job I have today — a job I truly love.

Rose Ors: A great segue to the next question: What career advice would you give your 20-year- old self today?

Matt Fawcett: It was fun for me to think about that question, in part because I’m attending my 25th law school reunion later this year. The question made me go back to my time in law school. How terribly confident I was and yet so naïve.

The first thing I would tell my 20-year-old self is — don’t be in such a rush. I went to UC Berkeley right after high school and graduated in four years. As a fellow alumnus, Rose, you know Berkeley is a great learning environment where most students spend five years as undergraduates. I loved being at Berkeley at a time where the tuition was $600 a semester. Taking an extra year of just taking classes would’ve been wonderful. I would tell my kids, if you can go to a Berkeley, take the five years.

The second piece of advice would be to take at least a year off between college and graduate school. I went right from college to law school. I made that decision not only being naïve about what lawyers do, but ignorant about what other careers and things there were to do in the world. I loved law school. I enjoyed everything about it, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I had just traipsed around the country doing odd jobs. Or lived abroad.

Matt Fawcett, NetApp GC

Rose Ors: What’s your third piece of advice?

Matt Fawcett: To take more time to learn and explore what truly excites you in terms of a career.

There are so many ways to be successful in the world that don’t have to follow a conventional path. Think about the things that give you energy and the things that deplete that energy. Thinking in these terms will help you to figure out what work you’d find fulfilling. That said, part of the journey is trying things out.

Rose Ors: What advice have you received that has influenced how you work with your team?

Matt Fawcett: Another question I had fun thinking about. I could easily share 20 pieces of advice but, I’ll keep it to three.

The first piece of advice that has always resonated with me, and that you hear it said a lot of different ways goes something like this: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” That took a while to really sink in for me, especially when I was a first-year associate grinding away in the library at midnight. But as I matured and got the privilege of leading a team, and representing that team in different places, the advice is now central to how I work with my team. I want my team to know I care about them as people, their development, and their careers, because I do.

The second piece of advice is: “One screw-up equals 100 attaboys.” Sure, everyone makes mistakes. We encourage people to make mistakes here, but not screw-ups that can be avoided. I want my team to remember that I would rather have them screw up in front of me, than screw up in front of one of our clients. The latter gets remembered. I certainly remember my own screw-ups much more than any triumphs or successes that I’ve had.

And the last piece of advice that has most certainly influenced how I try to do my job comes from my colleague Connie [Brenton, Senior Director of Legal Operations at NetApp]: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Connie is a great teammate and also a mentor to me, and this is one of her favorite sayings. She’s been very good at scaring me and encouraging me to do things that scared me. It’s created all kinds of rewards. It’s easy in our profession, which is often defined as risk avoidance or risk mitigation, to think that taking risks is to be avoided. I firmly believe that taking risks, thoughtfully and intentionally, is part of our role and crucial to greater success. So, on my desk I have that saying in a location that I see every day.

Rose Ors: What do you find most personally rewarding about your work, Matt?

Matt Fawcett: I’ll start by saying that I love my job. I enjoy coming into the office. It’s fun being here. I find it very rewarding that I get the opportunity to attend any business meeting where I think I can add value. My “practice” is diverse, varied, and general — sometime chaotic — and I enjoy it all.

I also get a complete charge and personal joy out of team development and growth. The wall behind us is what we kiddingly call the vanity wall. The plaques commemorate the achievements of the legal department and individual members of the team. For example, for several years in a row now, The Recorder has named us In-House Legal Department of the Year in the large department category. Individual awards have gone to Connie as one of a group of influential women in Silicon Valley and Beth O’Callahan, our head of corporate, compliance, and intellectual property, as a prominent lawyer poised to be a GC. We’ve never counted them all, but you can see there’s no space left on the wall. And I get to say I was part of it all. I hired them all and, along the way, helped them further their professional growth.

Finally, there’s NetApp — a Fortune 500 company that continues to be incredibly innovative and wants the legal department to also be innovative. We are actively encouraged to think differently. The result is that at NetApp, my role and the role of the legal department, is able to move beyond traditional roles. I’m grateful to my boss, and to the company for letting us do that.

Rose Ors: What has influenced your career choices?

Matt Fawcett: Being open to opportunities when they were available to me has played a big part in getting me where I am today. My first in-house job position came about when a friend told me about an opening at his company. Another job came about when someone I had met years before had become the GC of a pretty hot startup, and he said, “Come on board, and it’ll be crazy, and we’ll do everything and it’ll be a good experience no matter what happens.” And it was.

I must enjoy the challenge of learning new things because each of these in-house positions was outside my comfort zone when I joined. Each role required me to learn how to do that specific job. This is true even when I joined NetApp from JDS Uniphase. Even though both are general counsel positions, each required very different things from me in terms of what I was expected to achieve, the challenges I faced, and the opportunities. I love that learning new things is still part of my career.