Just Plane Smart
by Christine Fontana Wegmann, J.D. ‘97
The sky’s the limit for Mark R. Shaw, vice president-general counsel and corporate secretary for Southwest Airlines Co.
When Mark R. Shaw, J.D. ’90, decided to attend Loyola University College of Law, he originally considered becoming a first amendment lawyer. It was a natural thought progression given that after Shaw earned his bachelor’s of journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986, he worked as a reporter covering police and courts for the Amarillo Globe-News and then later as an associate news desk editor at the Waco Tribune-Herald. Although Shaw wound up practicing in the corporate restructuring group and in the corporate and securities group at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Dallas after law school, he probably never imagined that ultimately he’d land at a company with a fondness for hosting pajama days at the office.
But pajama-clad employees are exactly what Shaw encountered when he entered a stock options meeting with the finance department during his first few weeks of joining Southwest Airlines as an attorney in 2000. “That’s when I realized Southwest was a really different place,” says Shaw, who later became associate general counsel for Southwest’s corporate and transactions section for almost five years before becoming the vice president-general counsel and corporate secretary for Southwest in February 2013.
And Shaw understands exactly what it is that makes Southwest, which consistently earns an impressive array of top awards and accolades in categories such as customer service and best place to work each year in the airline industry, stand out from the rest. “It may sound clichéd, but having really good people working throughout the entire company makes a huge difference.”
Shaw, who provides advice on all legal matters at Southwest, including being principally responsible for advising the board of directors and senior management on a range of legal issues related to the development and implementation of the company’s business strategy, corporate governance, compliance policies, general corporate matters, and litigation, says that with 57 employees in his department, the focus is to have employees work together to build teamwork. “I have a really great bunch of associate general counsels and attorneys who are divided into several different groups, including litigation, labor and employee relations, and corporate transactions, which I used to head before I became general counsel, and all of these people are very experienced and smart, so it makes my job a lot easier,” Shaw says. “I can trust them to handle all of the daily substantive work, but I obviously get involved in some of the larger issues. Part of why I really love the job is I get to do a little bit of everything.”
Another reason Shaw enjoys his work is the surprise element of the job. “There is always something interesting happening every day, and when you are making decisions, you always have to keep in mind that the airline industry is a high-profile and highly scrutinized business and many things that come up are out in the press on a regular basis,” Shaw says. “The unexpected things that come up keep the job exciting.”
Sometimes the work can get a little too action-packed. “I was in a meeting recently, and the emergency response notification went off on my phone because of the shootings at LAX,” Shaw recalls. “We had to leave the meeting to get on a call to get the facts and find out what was happening, although the incident occurred in a separate terminal from ours, but we didn’t know that at the time. We had to immediately ensure that our customers and our employees were safe; then we had to make sure we dealt with the travel delays in a responsible manner.”
Travel interruptions are one of the many new and common aspects that have surfaced for the airline industry after the events of Sept. 11, which occurred when Shaw had been employed with Southwest for more than a year. “So many things are drastically different now, from travel pans to how the government is involved, whether it’s the DOT or FAA,” Shaw says. “It has been an incredibly difficult decade for airlines in general, especially for American and United, who had planes involved. After 9/11, it became a matter of figuring out a whole new world. It changed everyone’s position at Southwest as far as how we dealt with our operations.” But although the road of adjustments and regulations has been a long one, Shaw sees great things looming on the horizon for air travel.
“We’re starting to see some things that are making it easier to travel again,” he says. “For example, there’s a big push now for mobile boarding passes that can be accessed from phones versus customers having to print out paper. And there are new initiatives for TSA pre-clear where you can sign up and actually have the ability to go through a separate line of security without having to take off your shoes and take your laptop out, and Southwest is in the process of becoming part of that program. And the FAA recently released new rules regarding the use of personal electronic devices such as iPads and electronic readers; previously you had to keep them turned off below 10,000 feet, and now airlines are getting approval to allow customers to use these devices on the plane for the entire duration. That’s what customers want, and it will make travel more attractive.”
Shaw’s employment at Akin Gump began before he sat for the Texas Bar, and he believes his positions as a bankruptcy associate and afterward in the corporate securities section of the firm, along with the mentorship he received thanks to partners Steve Hatfield and Michael Mandel, proved to be a fantastic experience for him to prepare him for his present tenure at Southwest. It even led to him working in Shannon, Ireland, for six months with GE Capital Aviation Services on aircraft financing and leasing matters on behalf of GE.
“What I tell law students and new graduates is to keep your options open because the experiences you may be able to get can lead you in a whole different direction,” says Shaw, who offered this type of wisdom to attendees at a panel at Loyola in November 2013. “Don’t be set on thinking: ‘I’m going to be a litigator’ or ‘I’m going to practice environmental law.’ I never thought I’d like to do aircraft transactions because I wasn’t a pilot and I didn’t have an aviation background, but I really enjoyed those first aircraft deals I worked on, and I would have never thought I’d wind up living in Ireland.”
Shaw was born in Lockhart, Texas, and his father worked for Shell Oil. Shaw’s family was transferred to Slidell at the time he considered attending law school. “I applied to Loyola because I wanted to try a smaller school after being at UT and I wanted to live at home since I had no money,” he says. Loyola proved to be a great match for Shaw.
“I am appreciative for the opportunities I’ve gotten through Loyola,” he says. “While I was in school, I did an externship at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans with Judge Thomas Harley Kingsmill, which really got me interested in bankruptcy law, and I did a stint at the Fifth Circuit Staff Attorney’s office in New Orleans and got exposed to a lot of bright people and a lot of writing and research. I got both of these opportunities through Loyola. I feel like I got a great legal education that prepared me well for practicing law.”
Shaw studied the Common Law track and appreciated the dedication of his professors at Loyola. “I had Professor Ray Rabalais for Real Property – he was tough and you had to be prepared, but that type of challenge is imperative. I got a lot out of all my classes at Loyola.”
Shaw also relished going out in New Orleans once finals were over.
Shaw has taken time over the years to dedicate himself to charitable endeavors, including serving on the nonprofit board of Challenge Air for Kids & Friends, which offers fun flights for disabled children thanks to the efforts of volunteer pilots. Shaw also previously served on the board of the Dallas Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. Currently, Shaw is a member of the advisory board for Southern Methodist Univeristy’s Journal of Air Law and Commerce.
But out of all the impressive strides Shaw has made during lifetime, his personal favorite accomplishments are the births of his two children, his son, Matt, who is studying physics at the University of Texas at Austin, and his daughter, Lindsey, the athlete of the family, who plays softball and does cross-country running at her high school. “The births of my children are my proudest moments,” says Shaw, who shares that sentiment with his wife, Kristy, a CPA and controller of a small technology company in Dallas. “Kristy definitely gets most of that credit,” Shaw says with a big grin.