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.)