When a young lawyer asks Madeleine Johnson, vice president and general counsel of Southwest Airlines, what’s the best path to becoming the GC of a large company, she always has the same response: “Not the one I took.”

As an undergrad at Bryn Mawr College, Johnson majored in French. Upon graduation, she decided to continue her French studies in graduate school, focusing on medieval literature. But after a year of that, she realized she wanted to do something a little more current.

Over the next four years, Johnson traveled the world. Making her way through France, Greece, India, Nepal and countless other countries, she worked and spent time learning different cultures. In Istanbul, Johnson had a stint teaching English. But it was while she was in Iraq working as an interpreter that she began to think more seriously about her future.

“I found myself in a lot of situations where I was doing a lot more than interpreting,” Johnson explains. “I was playing the role of mediator and interpreter.”

She recognized her talent for moving things along and getting different parties to reach agreements, and that skill, she believed, would fit nicely in the area of law.

Johnson flew home from Iraq to take the LSAT and began applying to law schools. Several months later, she landed at Tulane University Law School. From there, Johnson’s career has taken her from law firm principal to assistant U.S. attorney to Dallas city attorney, and in 2008 she landed her dream job–the top spot in Southwest’s legal department.

Q: How did your career progress after law school?

A: After I graduated, I did a clerkship for a judge based in Austin. Then I worked for a law firm for six years. I was at the point of partnership when another opportunity came up in public service for the chief of the Opinion Division in the attorney general’s office. I was thrilled because I really wanted to do public service for some part of my career.

An opportunity arose to go back to Dallas in the criminal division as a federal prosecutor. It was fascinating. I went on from there to handle national security–this was all pre-Sept. 11.

Then I was approached to put my name in for the Dallas city attorney position. The responsibilities really paralleled a GC position. I did that for five years. I loved it, but I had decided when I went into the job I only wanted to spend five years there. I felt in those high profile public positions, you have to go in realizing it’s a public position. You have to accept that fact that you’re going to bump heads with people, but in the public environment, you can only do that for so long.

Q: How did you end up at Southwest?

A: When I was coming up on five years as city attorney, I decided I wanted a general counsel position. I met with recruiters who were pretty discouraging about my prospects for a GC job. They didn’t think I fit the mold. I got no encouragement. So I decided to go back to private practice and went to Fish & Richardson.

After a couple years I realized private practice wasn’t satisfying to me. So I decided to go find a GC job on my own. It was fortuitous. Right as I stated to look, the GC position at Southwest opened up. I sent in a resume with a cover letter. I was pleased that I got a letter back that they had received it. Then I got a phone call and started doing interviews. And what was so obvious was they weren’t focused on the checklist for a GC; they were focused on my leadership and experience.

Southwest saw my government experience as a strength. Today, there are few companies that don’t live in a regulatory environment. Government service has a lot of value for in-house lawyers. Southwest understood and appreciated the experience. To me, to have gotten this position, was the greatest honor and privilege of my career.

Q: What interested you about the airline industry?

A: I didn’t have a background in aviation. And I wasn’t specifically looking for work in this industry. I feel so fortunate to have ended up with such a fabulous company but in such an amazing industry. The airline industry is very high profile. It’s not a sleepy industry, it is frequently front-page news. It is almost mind-boggling about how complex the airline industry is.

Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of Southwest.

A: We have 19 lawyers. We have 58 people that work in my department.

The work is so varied. You have a calendar that says what you’re doing on any given day, then it turns out totally differently. That is an exciting part of the job. It is not for someone who likes everything planned out. You have to go with the flow, be flexible, react quickly and be decisive. Much of what I do is operating at that level.

I don’t operate only in the world of legal affairs. I am a liaison between the business team and the legal team. I have been so fortunate in my career. I feel all these other things I have done–litigation, prosecutorial work, government work, managing a legal department–it has all so come together here. It has made this job so gratifying.

Q: I understand you are involved in pro bono work. Tell me about it.

A: I am co-chairing the 30th anniversary of the Dallas CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocates]. It’s a group of court appointed volunteers who are lawyers and nonlawyers and who act as liaisons in all parties involving children who have been abused or neglected. The CASA volunteer acts as someone who collects information and figures out what is best for the child. It has been around for 30 years.

One of the things we did was put together the Leadership Counsel, where we have counsel who signed up to promote and be a part of this celebration. It used to be mostly law firms that were involved. As co-chair, I hope to form a bridge between the organization and GCs and their legal departments.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: The fact that I joined an industry that was totally new to me. Getting up to speed with that industry is something I do everyday. I am dealing with people every day that have been in this industry for 30 years, so playing catch-up is the biggest challenge. But I work with people who are so helpful and want you to succeed.

Q: What do you like most about the work you do?

A: My favorite part is getting to work with people who do genuinely care about each other, the company and its employees. There is no pecking order or hierarchy. That is by far, the best thing about working here.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC a large company?

A: Not to use my example. The best advice would be not to be afraid to follow your instincts, do what you want to do, don’t think there is only one path to do what you want to do. Be flexible, don’t box yourself in or be confined. In the long run, it opens up opportunities rather than closes them off.

Q: Where is your favorite place to travel on Southwest?

A: I fly all over the country on Southwest. I have to say I am grateful for the opportunity to fly on other airlines. Southwest is still my favorite airline to fly on. It’s the friendliest airline to fly on. Consistently we are the airline with highest customer service rating, and it isn’t an accident.