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John Fredericksen was well prepared for going in-house at Mesaba Airlines. He was a Navy pilot before he was a lawyer. After graduating from the University of Southern California’s law school in 1980, he went straight to the Federal Aviation Administration, and from there to a trade association for regional airlines. In 1992 Fredericksen was recruited by Mesaba for his expertise in aviation law. But nothing prepared him for the scorpion in the overhead compartment. “It must have come in on somebody’s carry-on baggage,” Fredericksen says. “That’s the way it is here. You never know what to expect.” When the stowaway scorpion stung an unsuspecting passenger, Fredericksen had to consider the liability risks — and the possibility of a publicity disaster. It’s only one of the surprises he’s dealt with during his eight years in-house at Minneapolis-based Mesaba Airlines. “What I did really not expect was the real intensity of the day-to-day airline business,” he says. “You don’t know what to expect. It can be kind of fun, but you must be ready for the constant, constant intensity that never lets up.” For Fredericksen, the surprises of being Mesaba’s general counsel go beyond the unusual kinds of legal work that sometimes come his way. When he joined the company in 1992, he hoped and expected that it would grow — but he didn’t anticipate the regional airline boom that has lifted the entire industry, especially Mesaba, into the stratosphere. “We’ve gone from a company operating 32 planes to one with 110 airliners,” Fredericksen says. “We had 1,000 employees when I started, and we have 3,500 now.” Almost all of that growth took place during the three years from 1995 to 1998; the advent of the regional jet allowed airlines such as Mesaba to extend their reach. Mesaba once concentrated all its flights in the upper Midwest. Now, with two main hubs in Minneapolis and Detroit, they have flights to cities such as Montreal, Dallas, Memphis, and Aspen, Colo. Fredericksen’s responsibilities grew along with the company. He says he always had duties that went beyond the strictly legal; in his earliest days at Mesaba, Fredericksen even met with the head mechanics to discuss the daily maintenance report. But soon the positions he held within the company, such as secretary of the corporation and vice president of administration, became more demanding of his time and energy, especially after he became responsible for human resources as well. Today, Fredericksen estimates that he only spends one-third of his time on legal work. Fredericksen still reviews all of the airline’s major contracts and is responsible for Mesaba’s interaction with government agencies — especially the FAA, a huge part of the legal work for any airline. “Other than nuclear power, there is no industry that is more heavily surveilled and regulated than the airline business,” he says. “You must deal with the government on a daily basis. That’s the nature of the industry.” Fredericksen has no plans to stop acting as general counsel; however, the business side of his duties has begun taking up so much of his time and energy that he is considering hiring another in-house lawyer to share in his legal work. “It would be nice to have a specialist in-house to deal with the airline issues I deal with all the time,” he says. “Dealing with the FAA is sort of a specialized area that your average law firm doesn’t do.” Of course, Fredericksen used to look at the FAA from the inside, but he says being in private industry hasn’t really changed his perspective. “Both sides look at safety as an ultimate, absolute goal that we have to have,” Fredericksen says. “We look at it, from our point of view, from practicality — we must fly 800 flights on time, every single day. And the FAA looks at it more from the point of view of ‘Are regulations being complied with?’ It’s a natural tension that’s probably healthy for the industry.” Mesaba’s CEO, Paul Foley, feels that Mesaba’s outside counsel (Minneapolis’s Briggs and Morgan, which has represented Mesaba since its formation, and Atlanta’s Ford & Harrison, specialists in airline labor relations) provide the support the company needs, while Fredericksen adds unique benefits by being in the airline’s upper ranks. “The legal strategy — you could outsource that,” he says. “You can’t outsource the value John brings to the corporation. I don’t know that I could find any law firm that would add the same amount of value that he does.” Fredericksen agrees that his knowledge as a lawyer has helped him be a larger part of the business of Mesaba Airlines. “The law affects every major decision we make,” he points out. “I just provide a little closer link to that.” Even after eight years, being a general counsel still presents novel challenges for Fredericksen. On any given day, he might have to deal with the plight of passengers stranded by bad weather or a plane grounded in Canada by engine problems. Or, for that matter, scorpions falling from above. That last problem wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The passenger recovered and did not sue. “It turns out that scorpion bites aren’t as serious as most people think,” he says.
Shifting Gears: Alternative Careers for Lawyers. October 3-17.

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