NetApp Inc. general counsel Matt Fawcett has added an in-house voice to the discussion of mental health in the legal industry.
In a LinkedIn post Tuesday he titled, “Let’s Get Real About Wellness in Legal,” Fawcett discussed mental health issues in the legal industry, and weighed in on work-life balance. He also noted the responsibility he feels leaders in the industry have to create a healthy work environment.
The Recorder affiliate Corporate Counsel spoke with Fawcett to learn more about the mental health issues impacting in-house counsel and the ways general counsel can help create a healthier legal industry, for inside and outside counsel. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Corporate Counsel: We’ve heard a lot about the legal industry’s mental health problems, but not usually from an in-house perspective. What are some of the challenges you’ve seen in-house counsel face?
Matt Fawcett: In many ways it can look very similar to what it would look like in Big Law. We have teams of really talented lawyers whose job it is to serve our clients, and we have incredibly demanding clients because we have interesting jobs that have lots of aspirations and lots of stress. Our world is built around quarterly reporting, and so there is, in any publicly traded company, a natural increase in stress in pressure as the quarter wears on. And when you hit day one of the next quarter, the pin is popped and you have to do it all over again.
I think something a lot of folks in-house miss about being a part of a big law firm is that most of the time you’re surrounded by other lawyers. And we’re the opposite of that. We’re surrounded by people who are all trying to accomplish an objective for the company, but our roles are different. And that can feel isolating at times.
I find the kind of stress and anxiety that’s attendant to [some] in-house roles to be a little different than my friends inside law firms, who deal with it, but they deal with it as part of a team.
CC: A point you made in your LinkedIn post is, even with that stress and anxiety, there are ways in-house counsel can help create a healthy work environment. What does a healthy in-house work environment look like to you?
MF: I think a healthy work environment is one where every person on the team feels like they can have professional achievement, professional development and growth at a “fair price.” That doesn’t mean cheap and easy and it doesn’t mean you have to overexert yourself to prove yourself. It’s about creating an environment where you feel like you can make a difference. That can help deal with the momentary, although frequent, stress levels.
I certainly feel grateful and lucky to work at NetApp, as a company that routinely says thank you. An environment where people say thank you and show appreciation and gratitude for the good work people do is incredibly energizing. On our team we try to make a habit of saying thank you for a job well done.
CC: It sounds like this culture is coming from the top. As a GC or chief legal officer, what are ways you can shape a healthy working environment from the top down?
MF: I think a lot of it is how I show up. Do I walk the talk? When I say, “I think transparency is important, I think engaging our team is important, I think providing opportunities to make a difference in the company is important, saying thank you is important”—if I’m not doing the same things myself, I’ll look, at best, hypocritical. And I want to be held accountable to those things.
The other important factor is my direct staff. Because that’s the team that really manages the vast majority of the work at NetApp from a legal perspective. What are their values? Is our fit good? Do we function well as a team? Do we look for ways to help our people?
CC: You mentioned that if you’re not living up to your values, you want it brought to your attention. That’s an openness that might not exist in every office. How did you develop that culture?
MF: I’m not going to hold myself out as saying I’m perfect or I have the secret sauce. But I’ll tell you the things I do to try to get us there. We have team meetings where we are pretty transparent. Probably not a single meeting goes by where we don’t have a vehicle saying we need feedback from this: What worked?
It’s important to make time, to sit down with people and ask, “What is going on?” Especially from here in Sunnyvale, our HQ, it’s easy to have one perception of your company. It’s really important to get perceptions of the company through the lenses of your team’s other locations. I make a conscious effort to do that. If there are people I haven’t seen in a long time, wherever they are in the org chart, we’ll just schedule time together.
CC: That sounds especially important given the point you brought up earlier—that being the only in-house lawyer on a team project or in an office can be isolating.
MF: I call them islands. We have lots of islands. We routinely find business reasons to bring them to HQ. Getting those folks to us when we can is a really good thing. When we hire new people who are on an “island,” we say, “We’d love to have you at Sunnyvale for a little while.”
It goes both ways. If my head of compliance travels to London, where we have more commercial people, it’s not like, “Oh, you’re not in my reporting chain, so I won’t meet with you.” It’s the opposite. I know you’re not in my reporting chain, but you’re on my team so we should spend some time together. We try to erode the natural divisions that come from the way we’re organized functionally.
CC: In your LinkedIn post, you say work-life balance is different from wellness, and that you place more value on wellness. What’s the difference between the two and why is it important to you?
MF: I think in the modern world, a traditional view of work-life balance, implying here’s my work time, here’s my non-work time and I’m going to manage those two in equilibrium just doesn’t make sense. It isn’t realistic. There’s not a day where I’m not doing work, and there’s also not a day when I’m not doing life.
I think there are probably times people might say, “Matt, you’re working extraordinarily hard right now, you must be bummed out.” But I don’t feel that way. If I feel I’m doing something that matters, I find it stimulating and exciting. I also don’t think that issue correlates to wellness.
CC: Looking at mental health in the legal profession as a whole here, are there any ways that GCs can help create a healthy work environment for their outside counsel as well?
MF: It’s a good question. I’ve not—I would bet you most GCs would be really open and happy to have transparent dialogues with their outside counsel about how they think about it, and what they’re doing, and whether there are ways to collaborate along those lines.
But I’m also not speaking for all GCs. I’m not sure we’re thinking about how we influence the wellness of the people in our firms. But it’s a really good question and I’m confident the people who sit in my chair are ready, willing and able to have meaningful dialogue with our counsel about it.