When Thomas Lacchia, ’69, made a gift to establish an endowed professorship at the Law School, it was the culmination of more than 40 years of philanthropy at the University of Michigan.
Early in his career, Lacchia made a commitment to give back to the Law School to the greatest extent he was able, as well as to the College of Engineering, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1966. His recent $2.5 million gift that established the Thomas W. Lacchia Professorship at the Law School is the latest demonstration of his unyielding support for the University and its mission.
Lacchia is a native Michigander born and raised in East Lansing. With his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering augmented by three years in the Law Quad, Lacchia says that his time at U-M paved the way for a career that has straddled both areas of expertise.
“I will never forget my first semester calculus class in the College of Engineering. I had never received anything but As in math in high school, but going into the final I was between a B and C,” he recalls. “I studied like hell and received an A, and it revealed that I could accomplish things if I worked hard—and it inspired me to do so. I owe all that has come after in my life and career to the University of Michigan.”
Lacchia graduated from the College of Engineering and was inducted into Tau Beta Pi, a prestigious engineering honor society; he enrolled at the Law School the following fall. He worked summer jobs with General Motors and RCA Laboratories while pursuing his JD, and he spent his days reviewing patent applications and performing database research to determine if the idea was a novel innovation or something previously patented by another individual or entity.
Michigan’s automotive industry offered a wealth of opportunities for a young lawyer with a background in engineering. But after a lifetime of Michigan winters, Lacchia decided to put the cold weather behind him and moved to California, something he was inspired to do after traveling to Pasadena to watch the Wolverines trounce Oregon State in the 1965 Rose Bowl.
Lacchia spent a year clerking for the Hon. Gerald S. Levin on the US District Court for the Northern District of California. He says the experience taught him the importance of being thorough. “I was researching case law and writing briefs in order to help prepare the judge and give him something to think about,” he says. “It was very important to be precise, and it was great preparation for the rest of my legal career.”
When his clerkship concluded, Lacchia became a deputy district attorney in Modesto, California, where he gained courtroom experience and prosecuted misdemeanors and felonies. Following his time as a prosecutor, Lacchia joined the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which offered an interesting blend of trial work and other responsibilities.
His role at Caltrans evolved over time and allowed him to work on varied areas of the law, including litigating condemnation cases related to highway expansion, personal injury defense, and environmental rules related to the state’s roadways. He developed expertise in matters relating to liability on public property, and co-authored a chapter, “Dangerous Condition of Public Property,” in the third edition of California Tort Liability Practice (Continuing Education of the Bar, California, 1992). Lacchia stayed with Caltrans for more than two decades, until his retirement in 1996.
For Lacchia, his rewarding career and the life it has enabled all began in Ann Arbor. “Without the University, I’d be nothing, and I appreciate the education I received,” says Lacchia. “One thing about my education at the College of Engineering and at the Law School is that I not only learned the substance, I also learned how to think. It has served me well.”—JW
In the summer of 2022, Michigan Law named Aaron Perzanowski the inaugural Thomas W. Lacchia Professor of Law. Read more about Perzanowski and other new members of the faculty here.