Those in the auto rental industry are, by now, aware of Michael LaPlaca’s untimely passing. For those in other areas of the automotive and fleet industries who read this blog, you may not have known him, so let me tell you briefly who he was: Michael LaPlaca was “the” auto rental industry’s lawyer for many, many years. He was a counselor to hundreds of auto rental operators, a trusted authority on auto rental law, a business advisor, an advocate for the industry, a voice of logic and reason and wisdom, a steady hand.
What follows is a freeform stream of remembrances and random thoughts, much of which didn’t quite fit into the retrospective article I’m working on for Auto Rental News on Michael’s life and career. Really, how does anyone’s life fit in three pages in a magazine?
Michael dispensed mountains of legal advice over the years. He got paid for a lot of it, hopefully most, though if he had charged for all the free advice he gave he probably could’ve built the Taj Mahal. But this conveyance of knowledge was never a burden for Michael. He genuinely enjoyed helping people.
Just one of Michael’s legacies will be his work on crafting the rental agreement, the governing document in the rental transaction. Michael authored just about all of the rental agreements used by any car rental company outside of the majors. When you look back on a life, most don’t reflect on the things that didn’t happen. But the careers of lawyers should in large part be defined by their ability to protect their clients from legal action. You can be sure that Michael’s rental agreements were scrutinized continually by a bunch of litigious-minded lawyers, and set back down, perhaps in a huff, as they discovered there wouldn’t be any loopholes in there to build some case.
You could say Michael was an ironical lawyer. He was non-litigious and non-confrontational. There is the threat of legal action and then there is a sensible resolution to a problem. He chose the latter. He didn’t count every comma in an email and charge you for it. And he abhorred legalese. “He was an emphatically intelligent guy,” says Noah Lehmann-Haupt of Gotham Dream Cars, a client and mentee. And yet, “I’ve never seen him speak down to a person or speak in anger to a person,” says Lee Workman, who was hired by LaPlaca in his early corporate days.
Michael truly enjoyed his work and wanted to work until the day he died (which he just about succeeded in doing, by the way). But he knew how to relax and enjoy himself. “He had work-life balance way before there was such a phrase,” his wife Bonnie says.
Michael had been a season ticket holder for the Washington Redskins, and he was also a hockey fan. Bonnie recounted that Michael brought her to almost all of the Washington Capitals home hockey games during their first five years of living in D.C. A Georgetown graduate, he loved his Hoyas basketball and would take clients to games.
Michael seemed to get his hands into a lot of stuff, from early on. He played basketball in high school and was a drummer in a band through to his college years. He loved golf, but not only that; he made his own golf clubs and had the equipment to do it.
He was a foodie and a great cook; the genesis of this might’ve been when as a child he was tasked with “starting dinner” when he came home from school. Not only did he start dinner, he ended up creating the whole meal, says Bonnie. He carried the title of family chef into his married years, doing all the cooking, from family meals to entertaining, in a variety of cuisines. He loved crabs and crab cakes and a good bottle of red wine.
He was an avid reader of all kinds, from “airport novels” to the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and Wine Spectator. He dressed well, and made sure to be in one of his elegant suits at even more informal affairs. This seemed to belie his eternal easygoing nature.
Michael loved cars. He had many, and a variety of types, including a Trans Am, a 92 Ford Thunderbird, a two-door Mercedes coupe, BMWs, two Mazda Miatas and even that boxy little Scion xB, to name just a few. It had been said that Michael had a lead foot, which Bonnie contests. “I can’t say he collected speeding tickets,” she says, “but he liked cars with spunk. He hated automatics. He liked to drive sticks.”
Bonnie remembers the car he courted her with, a big yellow Lincoln convertible. “He’d drive at night from Washington DC to New York with the top down to pick me up in it,” she says.
Michael and his wife Bonnie enjoy a meal at one of their favorite San Francisco restaurants.
(Michael met Bonnie at Hertz in the 70s, though he left Hertz before they started dating. He asked her to lunch, but his work got in the way that day. So he asked her to dinner instead. “Dinner, that’s different,” thought Bonnie. Yes it is, as the guys reading this will attest. They were married for 37 years.) [PAGEBREAK]
He counted San Francisco as one of his favorite places, and he knew where to take you to eat there, those little eclectic gems of restaurants. If you were to define a favorite place even further, you must include the Arthur Hills Course at Palmetto Dunes in Hilton Head, S.C. “He went to sleep dreaming about playing each hole,” Bonnie says. And if you wanted to get real specific, it would be the 13th hole—the one with lots of water.
Michael assumed the mantle of “elder statesman” for many years. But he was never behind the times. In fact, he embraced change, and he continually assimilated technological advancements into his work and home life. He had the latest version of everything.
Michael was up to speed early on regarding storing documents electronically and putting his publications in electronic form. He computerized his billing system, his data and his communications before software programs did all that work. He adapted to email in its infancy, during a time when the legality of electronic communication was being sorted out.
And he built a few computers, actually assembled them. This may not come as a surprise from a man who built his own golf clubs. Could you picture the barrister at his desk, tinkering with a pile of electronic components in front of him?
As we at Bobit put on this thing called the Car Rental Show, I was interested to find out the great number of people who met Michael for the first time there. Certainly, CRS was a touch point for him to reconnect with old colleagues and make new acquaintances, as it is for the rest of the auto rental industry. But it’s hard to imagine a show without Michael in the room, marching up and down the aisles, gesticulating to make a point. The show was his stomping grounds, and so was Las Vegas. Someone should see to it that a low-stakes Texas Hold ‘Em table leaves a seat empty in his honor.
Michael and his son Andy in front of one of Michael's many cars, this one a 92 Ford Thunderbird.
Many found his legal and legislative update session as the most valuable part of the show. I concur, and tell you that the band marches on. Leslie Pujo, whom Michael hired to the firm in 2008, will present the legal and legislative update at this year’s show. We’ll reserve the last few minutes of that session to share remembrances of him. Though untimely, Michael was seeing to it that Leslie succeeded him. Leslie, Michael said, was the smartest lawyer he had ever come across, and he had met a few.
Leslie is moving full steam ahead in the practice. The torch is passing. As the legendary Sol Edidin (former general counsel to Hertz and with whom Michael first went into practice) mentored LaPlaca, so LaPlaca mentored Leslie.
Leslie weighs in on her experience with him:
“Michael was a wonderful role model in being a “complete” attorney – one who works hard for his or her clients, keeps current on the law, and also leads a well-rounded life outside of the world of statutes and caselaw.
Working with Michael was fun. We worked hard, but we had a good time and laughed a lot. We could spend hours discussing loss of use, the Graves Amendment, financial performance representations, and whether we should change the word “any” to “each” in a particular contract. At the same time, we could also spend a good bit of time discussing football and commiserating with each other on the seasons of his Redskins and my Cornhuskers. We discussed our latest culinary feats and shared recipes, online shopping tips (and hiding purchases from spouses), and a love for living in San Francisco. We always shared cupcakes and coffee to celebrate birthdays or other milestones. We talked about all types of music and shared tales about his drum-playing and my piano playing. We knew and cared about each other’s families, and I think that is the bottom line. We were more than colleagues or even friends – we were family.”
Michael lived a full, rich life and yet he died before his time. You just can’t say goodbye that easily. But certainly, for those that knew you Michael, for those you met and mentored, they carry with them a bit of your grace, your good nature, your calm reasoning, your passion and compassion, and your caring and respect. They made sure to tell me so.