Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

A Good Fit

Charles Michaels, '74, looks back over successful careers as both a lawyer and a Marine Corps officer - and a successful year as president of the L.A. Bar Association

by Grace Renshaw Charles Michaels, '74

Growing up as a "latchkey kid" in Abilene, Texas, Charles Michaels cherished two career goals: To serve in the Marine Corps and to be a lawyer.

His desire to join the Marine Corps had been kindled by a boyhood mentor, Colonel Louis B. "Chesty" Puller, for whom his mother had served as a housekeeper. The burly, barrel-chested officer, who earned five Navy Crosses and became one of the most decorated Marines in the Corps' history, often told Michaels' mother, "Some day Charlie will be a great Marine."

Michaels' mother stressed the importance of a good education and encouraged her son to consider a career as a lawyer. "We were very poor, and neither one of us actually knew any lawyers," Michaels says. "In fact, I did not meet a lawyer until I was about to graduate from college. But my mother thought that the law would be a good profession."

Michaels considers himself "lucky to make it out of high school," and he credits the efforts of a high school guidance counselor who took an interest in him and helped him get a scholarship to Abilene Christian University. He joined the Marine Corps immediately after his graduation in 1968, knowing he would be deployed to Vietnam. There, he commanded an infantry platoon.

College professors with connections at Vanderbilt encouraged Michaels to apply to Vanderbilt Law School after he left active duty in the Marines in 1971. Michaels found law school considerably less stressful than some of his classmates, despite the fact that he worked for Nashville's legal department and served in the Marine Reserves throughout law school, his wife also worked at two jobs, and the couple had a child. "No one was shooting at me," he says, "and I didn't have a whole platoon to look after."

Today, as vice president and general counsel of LAACO, Ltd., a well-regarded Southern California real estate company with holdings throughout the western United States, Michaels looks back on a long and successful career as a corporate attorney and as a highly decorated, retired colonel in the Marine Reserves. Michaels retired from the Marines in 1998, after 30 years of reserve and active military service that included serving as Assistant Operations Officer (Ground) of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, Fleet Marine Force from 1987 to 1990. "In the summer of 1989, I was in Florida participating in an Army war game exercise against Iraq," he recalls. "We had actual satellite images of the build-up of Iraqi forces on the Kuwait border, and we realized that Saddam was going to invade Kuwait. We sent that message up the chain. Within a day, the cia sent a message back to the effect that the build-up was just a demonstration of force to pressure the Kuwaitis into negotiating on the disputed oil fields."

A year later, Michaels and his fellow officers found their prediction validated. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, just as Michaels was starting a new job as vice president, general counsel and secretary of LAACO. He was called back to active duty at Camp Pendleton. "My start-date was obviously delayed," he says.

Michaels has been a corporate attorney throughout his legal career. He calls the position he's held for the past 17 years with LAACO "a perfect fit," right down to the fact that LAACO's offices are located in one of its subsidiaries, the Los Angeles Athletic Club, allowing Michaels, a fitness devotee, to work out daily. Before joining LAACO, he was the general counsel of Petrolane Inc., the nation's largest distributor of liquefied petroleum gas, and before that, he served as associate group counsel and assistant secretary for Litton Industries, where he managed the legal work of several divisions and the Electron Devices and Materials Group.

Michaels has spent the last year as president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, a position he was asked to take on because of his able leadership of the association's corporate lawyer section and his service on the prestigious organization's board, where he ultimately became treasurer. He acknowledges that the workload - essentially two full-time jobs - has been incredibly stressful. "The L.A. Bar Association is an organization of over 28,000 lawyers with a full-time staff of about 90 people and a budget in excess of $13 million this year," he says. "In our board meetings, we have 40-plus lawyers, all of whom are very bright and very successful and most of whom are very extroverted. It's been an honor and a privilege, but I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to do pro bono work for the poor rather than just encouraging others to do it."