If Southwest Airlines Ran Your Law Firm

Southwest Airlines - June 10, 2001 Earlier this year I wrote a post entitled, If Dominos Ran Your Law Firm. That post focused on the window on its operations that Dominos Pizza provides to its customers via the Dominos Tracker. Of course, I was drawing a pointed contrast with the lack of transparency that most law firms offer to their clients.

In that spirit of pointed contrasts, let’s take a look at Southwest Airlines. Since its beginning, Southwest Airlines has followed a distinctive path. The company has made some choices that other companies find difficult, if not impossible, to make. As a result, Southwest has developed a unique company culture that is known as “Living the Southwest Way.” According to the post, Southwest Airlines “Gets It” With Our Culture, their culture has three components:

  • Warrior Spirit:  work hard, desire to be the best, be courageous, display a sense of urgency, persevere, and innovate.
  • Servant’s Heart:  follow The Golden Rule, put others first, demonstrate proactive Customer Service (that includes both Internal–SWA Employees–and External Customers), and embrace the SWA Family.
  • Fun-LUVing* Attitude:  don’t take yourself too seriously, maintain perspective (balance), celebrate successes, enjoy your work, and be a passionate Teamplayer. [*LUV is Southwest’s ticker symbol.]

Perhaps the most significant way in which Southwest is not like most other companies flows from Southwest’s priorities. Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest, explains what he sees as the false choice regarding corporate priorities:

When I started out, business school professors liked to pose a conundrum: Which do you put first, your employees, your customers, or your shareholders? As if that were an unanswerable question. My answer was very easy: You put your employees first. If you truly treat your employees that way, they will treat your customers well, your customers will come back, and that’s what makes your shareholders happy. So there is no constituency at war with any other constituency. Ultimately, it’s shareholder value that you’re producing.

Putting Employees First

Can you give me the name of a law firm that puts its employees first? If you ask most law firms, they’ll tell you that they “put the client first.” (As a practical matter, many actually put their shareholders (i.e., the partners) first.) At Southwest, the approach is quite different. In fact they express it with the following “magic formula“:

Happy Employees = Happy Customers = Increased Business/Profits = Happy Shareholders! 

They also express it quite explicitly as part of the mission statement posted on their website:

The Mission of Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

To Our Employees

We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.

Imagine that? Treating employees as you expect them to treat your clients. Encouraging creativity and innovation rather than conformity and rigid adherence to tradition. Supporting employees as they find new ways to build the business and keep customers happy. The cynic in you might say that words are cheap. In fact you might question whether it is possible to run a financially viable operation in this manner. According to Southwest’s most recent “One Report,” 2011 marked the 39th consecutive year of profitability for the company. Can you name a major law firm that can match these results?

Southwest’s website features the following quotation from Gary Kelly, their CEO:

Our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring longterm competitive advantage.

I suspect senior management of your firm has said that from time to time, but how have they demonstrated it? Aside from moving from the jargon of  “professional development” to that of “talent management,” has anything materially improved for the employees of your firm? Is there a sense of teamwork and shared mission regardless of whether or not the members of the team have law degrees? Is there a commitment to mutual learning and growth? Is there explicit encouragement of creativity and innovation, not only in the practice of law but in the business of law?

Herb Kelleher once observed that competitors can buy your tangible assets, but they cannot buy the competitive advantage your company culture gives you. Has your law firm invested in a company culture that keeps your best employees engaged and encourages every employee to become one of the best? As the economic environment becomes more challenging, your people will truly be your greatest strength. Now would be a good time to start thinking like Herb Kelleher if you’re serious about being in this game for the long haul.


Just for fun, here’s an example of a Southwest Airlines employee at work:


[Photo Credit: Jim Ellwanger]

One thought on “If Southwest Airlines Ran Your Law Firm

  1. Since nobody else has, I just wanted to say this is a great post. I’m going to start handing out peanuts to clients.

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