It was through a want ad that John Lawless ended up 6 years ago as GC to Omega World Travel, which sells $1.3 billion a year in airline and cruise tickets as well as event planning services. Omega, located in Fairfax, is the largest woman-owned company in the Washington region, with 1400 employees in 200 locations throughout the country, often onsite with customers. Lawless grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, got a bachelors in business from Kansas State and a law degree from Washburn Law School in Topeka (‘91).
Bisnow on Business: How did you get to Omega?
I did litigation in Kansas before coming here with my wife, who took a job with USAirways. It takes a while to get admitted to practice in DC, and while I waited, I decided I needed something to help me make a living and pass the time, so I worked as an account executive for FedEx. That was interesting, but I planned to get back into law and saw an online ad for Omega.
Can you really get a job from a want ad?
You can get in the door, although the resemblance of my background to the HR rep’s grandfather’s—Kansas State and Washburn—may have helped.
What's the most interesting thing you've worked on lately?
Here’s an example of something that was interesting and also created some law. We got a call one day from a guy saying he was an Internet service provider in Oklahoma, claiming we’d been sending unsolicited promotions from our Cruise.com site. I asked if he had exercised his option to unsubscribe, and he replied that only an idiot would do that. He also wouldn’t tell me his email address so I could unsubscribe him. I realized I wasn’t dealing with a reasonable person. He claimed that we were guilty of criminal spamming and that he would sue us as he has sued others.
Did he want money?
He claimed we owed him $125,000 but said he would settle for less. I told him we were not going to pay because we are very careful to comply with all federal laws regarding online promotions. Shortly after, he posted egregious defamatory comments on his website, saying he would sue us for millions, that the principals or our company were criminals and I was on drugs—and compared me to Jeff Spikoli from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We filed a claim for defamation in the eastern district of Virginia, and he filed a counterclaim for spam.
And what happened?
His suit was dismissed on summary judgment and he appealed it to the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. It was actually a case of first impression about whether the less restrictive federal CAN-Spam Act preempts state law, so it was a published opinion, and the Appeals court affirmed the trial court. I assisted in drafting the appellate brief but I was not an attorney of record because I had spoken with him and had become a witness. But our defamation suit survives.
More normally, what are the biggest issues you wrestle with?
I probably spend a third of my time on employment issues. We are very vigilant to be sure we’re compliant with Title VII non-discrimination, for example, and the ADA. I’m very interested to read new cases, regulations, or newsletter articles about them. And we spend a lot of time on contracts, of course.
Any particular kind of law needed in your law department because of the nature of your business?
Agency law, because when we sell leisure travel it’s on behalf of the cruise providers and so forth. And government contracting law because we do a lot in that arena, which requires a familiarity with the proposal process and government contract procedures. Otherwise, the bulk of our work is ordinary commercial transactions and contracts.
How have you learned the business side of your job?
My undergraduate degree in business has been invaluable. I see my clients as being the directors and managers of the different departments here. Gloria, our president, often asks me my view about operations—do you think providing this service to that customer would be profitable, or what do you think we should do about this or that facility?
You have facilities?
We actually own a number of facilities, such as our reservation center in Jacksonville, or a 35,000 square foot facility we have in North Carolina to house our accounting and operations. We have two 36,000 square foot buildings here in Fairfax, a warehouse in Sterling, and some undeveloped properties and condominium office spaces in Virginia, Maryland, and New York.
Do you have an open door policy for your employees, or is that an invitation to get diverted and never get any work done?
People can come to me anytime they want.
Assuming you like to travel, do you have a favorite place?
Of course, I love traveling. I would say Costa Rica. Quiet, peaceful, stunningly beautiful.
If you could have your absolute dream career, would it be a cruise director?
No, it would be to coach high school football, hands down. I played cornerback and running back when I was a kid.
And when you’re not at work…?
I’ve been weight training for about 25 years, so I’d say that’s a big hobby. I also have three kids, aged 2, 6, and 18, respectively. Kids keep you on your toes.
Cool perks in the travel biz?
Sure. You get to hear about all the great specials, and we get good deals on air travel, car, and hotel.
How do you find having your last name in the profession you have?
Well, people remember it. I’ve thought of changing it to “John Lawful,” but that’s not as catchy.
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