NetApp legal department.
Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM

Change is often unavoidable, and not everyone is great at navigating it. Fortunately, the in-house attorneys at Sunnyvale-based NetApp Inc. have proven over the past year or so that they can do more than just handle change—they can thrive through it.

Matthew Fawcett, general counsel and secretary at NetApp explained that between July 2016 and June 2017, there were plenty of challenges for the 38 attorneys in the company’s legal department.

“We went through a significant transformation initiative that included both deep budget and staff cuts—my top two objectives were to have no attrition from the staff who remained and to meet or exceed our financial targets,” said Fawcett in an email interview. “I am proud that the team rallied around our challenges and hung together.

One aspect of hanging together has been finding ways to collaborate effectively, despite the fact that the in-house legal team for NetApp is spread across the globe, throughout 22 offices in 12 countries.  “We try to be deliberate about creating a team that can ‘pass the ball in the dark’ across the many countries and time zones in which we sit,” said Fawcett.

Part of the way legal does this, he noted, is by connecting legal colleagues across geographies and practice groups into “Learning Circles” made up of eight to 10 people each, which allow for discussion, relationship building and collaboration toward meeting department goals.

NetApp has leveraged the power of teamwork, both within the department and outside of it, to build new efficiencies in the way the legal department runs. For instance, at the beginning of 2017, the company took to streamlining its litigation collections process with an assist from its law firms, alternative service providers and technology experts.

With the help of these partners, which included multiple Am Law 100 law firms, NetApp created an automated workflow for document collection, replacing the burdensome spreadsheets and email chains that ruled the day in the old manual system.

“We try hard to build true partnering relationships with our outside firms as well as legal services groups that provide litigation support, among other things,” said Fawcett. “It is never as simple as a turn-key process, but we are grateful for the openness and willingness of our partners to work to find the best and most efficient outcomes for NetApp.”

NetApp’s legal department has made other big strides in operations this year with a little help from its friends. The department’s ops function, led by Connie Brenton, NetApp’s chief of staff and director of legal operations, has grappled with a growing amount of legal work without a corresponding rise in resources. They have done this in part by developing a shared services organization, a team that can ensure legal matters are right-sourced, to guarantee that only work that needs to be escalated to NetApp’s in-house lawyers crosses these lawyers’ desks.

This sense of discipline around process and workflow extends to NetApp’s compliance program as well. The legal department recently revamped its partner risk assessment and due diligence process, as well as gifts and entertainment and conflicts of interest analyses, creating a new digital workflow that uses electronic questionnaires to place potential business partners into a risk category. The process both right-sources work and allows the legal department to throw the spreadsheets in the trash.

NetApp’s legal department has also excelled in the ever-important area of patent strategy. NetApp lowered spending on IP and made it more predictable without sacrificing quality through an innovative pilot program. The lawyers began by poring over historical data on billing for IP work, which resulted in the discovery of a wide variety of billing and staffing setups from outside counsel for comparable work, as well as the fact that NetApp was assigning and billing for out-of-scope work.

The legal department took numerous steps to resolve these issues, including using bill review support on NetApp’s IP portfolio, a move that helped the company recoup more than $200,000 in savings, and narrowing the scope of outside firms’ work to eliminate tasks that did not add value.

NetApp’s in-house counsel also moved to fixed fee arrangements with more firms to generate significant savings of time and money, and created a competitive bid process for work that led to about 19.5 percent in cost savings.

NetApp’s legal department has come a long way, but it isn’t done evolving. Over the next year, Fawcett said he plans to build on tools that enable NetApp’s business to move quickly and efficiently and simplify customer and partner interfaces, in addition to achieving operating metrics that are “world-class.”