THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Practice Development

Marketing: Lessons for Lawyers from Herb Kelleher

Robert W. Denney

Give clients something different. Stay focused on your strengths. Be the master, not the slave, of your technology. Here’s a look at the lessons law firms can learn from what might seem to be an unrelated industry.


Recently I had a wonderful treat. During a televised conference for business executives, I heard a talk by Herb Kelleher, founder and chair of Southwest Airlines, who retired last year as CEO. Kelleher, by the way, is also a lawyer and was one of the founding partners of a San Antonio firm.

He has always been a particular favorite of mine, because I have flown Southwest many times and experienced the airline’s philosophy firsthand. The more you learn about Southwest, and Kelleher’s own beliefs, the more you realize why it is the most profitable airline in the industry and one of the most admired companies in the world.

Listening to Kelleher, I began to think of how much lawyers and their firms can learn from Southwest about management and marketing. What, you may wonder, can you learn from an airline? In the case of this one—and only this one—plenty! Its philosophies transcend the industry and can improve the performance of any lawyer and law firm.

An Education in Strategy and Vision

While Southwest’s operating strategy has never been rocket science, it has always been unconventional. When the other major airlines were all following one strategy, such as creating big hubs, Southwest was doing something different, such as flying point-to-point. When other airlines started cutting prices and also reducing service "giving less for less," as Kelleher described it "Southwest cut its already-low prices further but provided more service—giving more for less," in Kelleher’s words.

• Lesson for lawyers: Don’t copy other firms. Give your clients something different. Offer more attention and additional services, such as educational seminars and informative client alerts. Add value to your legal expertise.

Thanks to Kelleher, Southwest has always stayed focused on its strengths. Yes, it could buy much bigger jets, assign seats and fly non-stops coast-to-coast. But then it would be trying to do what the other major carriers already do, rather than what it does better than anyone else.

• Lesson for lawyers: Stay focused on your strengths and what you do well. Don’t try to be all things to all people.

Other airlines have tried to replicate Southwest’s operating strategy without understanding the power of its unique culture. Southwest’s culture is something its people work hard at every day. The airline hires for attitude, and then trains for skill. It expects its employees to think and act like owners of the business.

• Lesson for lawyers: Develop a culture where everyone acts like owners and accepts responsibility for the firm’s success. Recruit people who have a client-focused attitude as well as the required technical skills. Then continue to train and motivate them.

From the very beginning, the people of Southwest have had an uncompromising dedication to the vision Kelleher inspired: not to be the biggest airline but, instead, "to provide great service at low cost." That’s pretty simple; no high-sounding phrases there. But it takes hard, continuous work. By their dedication to achieving and maintaining the vision, Southwest’ people have made the airline a truly phenomenal success.

• Lesson for lawyers: Define your vision, whatever it may be, and pursue it relentlessly. Everything else—interesting work, delighted clients who refer others to you and quality people who want to join your firm—will follow. Your vision will become the "brand" for which you’re recognized.

Other Lessons from a Tough Business

After finishing his prepared talk, Kelleher provided further lessons in response to questions from the audience. One of the first questions was, "What is Southwest’s market niche?" His answer: "People who want low-cost but dependable air travel because they’re paying for it themselves. That means primarily vacationers, not businesspeople." The follow-up question was, "But aren’t you ignoring a big niche?" His answer: "You don’t have a niche unless you give up other niches and revenues."

• Lesson for lawyers: Even if you’re with a megafirm, select a niche (substantive area, industry or type of client), and focus your practice and marketing on that niche.

Another audience member posed the question, "Is your technology strategy based on being leading-edge?" Kelleher’s answer: "We don’t have a technology strategy. We decide on our business strategy and then design our technology to help us implement it. We’re not here to serve the computer."

• Lesson for lawyers: If your technology isn’t improving the quality and efficiency of your work, your client service and your marketing, then develop new technology.

The final question directed to Kelleher was, "If you had to boil it down to one thing, what has been the secret of Southwest’s success?" His answer was short and quick: "The Golden Rule."

• Lesson for lawyers: Treat your lawyers and staff like clients. And treat your clients like you want to be treated.

The airline business is a tough business. So is law practice. But you can achieve greater success and enjoy your practice more if you remember these lessons from Herb Kelleher and his airline.

Bob Denney (, president of Robert Denney Associates, Inc. , is a strategic marketing and management consultant. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.