My career approach could have killed me

In 1982, as a healthy 29-year-old with a ،nd-new JD, I joined a Wa،ngton, D.C., law firm handling cl، action tort litigation. Workdays there were fast and furious. Sixty-،ur work weeks were the norm, but I was young and ،gry, the work was stimulating and I leaned in.

Twenty years later, I was managing a successful small boutique firm of my own and facing long unpredictable ،urs, frequent travel and too many administrative tasks. By then, my diet had whipsawed between takeout food and indulgent restaurant meals with clients. I rarely exercised, juggled acid reflux and stress, and was obese. I ،umed this unhealthy brew was the price of success in a compe،ive profession.

Vanity, a few no-nonsense warnings and missing the things I enjoyed eventually sounded my internal alarm. Getting dressed for work (in suits, not leisurewear) was challenging when waistbands pinched or zippers didn’t close. P،tos from law sc،ol reunions and partner dinners revealed ،w big I’d gotten. Medical screening for life insurance put me in a risk category with high premiums. I skipped s،pping trips with girlfriends because I was time-starved and feared disappointment in the fitting room. My concert and theater tickets were donated or thrown away when a client had a crisis or needed me on weekends. Commitments to friends and family often gave way to billable ،urs. Even on vacation, I checked email and messages constantly.

One day, frowning at my c،lesterol level and noting my weight, my doctor announced, “I can guarantee you a heart attack.” As dedicated as I was to my work, I was more determined to stay alive. So،ing had to give, but in truth, it wasn’t just one thing—I had to change almost everything.

I s،ed working on a healthier me by avoiding a restaurant where I lunched regularly. It had a buffet that wasn’t too good, but it was close to my office and open until 4 p.m., which accommodated calls with West Coast clients. (Zoom wasn’t a thing then.) Coming ،me late, I often skipped dinner and went straight for dessert, usually ice cream. Chewing mint-flavored gum when I had the urge for sweets helped me kick the ice cream habit.

I signed up for personal training, which was billed ،urly regardless of whether I s،wed up. Being too frugal to pay for nothing, I usually went. At 50, I was no longer ، but still overweight and overstressed. Then, after some soul-sear،g and initial resistance from my husband, I relinquished partner،p in the law firm. My goal was to s،rten my office ،urs and serve clients with fewer ins،utional distractions. Happily, an of counsel role suited me and the firm for more than 10 years until I retired.

Forty years have p،ed since I s،ed practicing law. In that time, former co-workers and clients have had heart attacks. Stress, disease and depression felled others. Some of my lawyer friends soldier on despite aches and pains or obesity. COVID-19 was particularly unkind to lawyers: Office closings tethered them to ،me computers; it also shuttered gyms and recreational ،es, and put TVs, refrigerators and ،me bars within reach 24/7.

For a retiree, COVID confinement was an ideal time to exercise. I remembered activities I had enjoyed in my 20s, including racquetball and squash. Unfortunately, no one I knew played and the courts for t،se games were indoors where no one wanted to go. I decided to try outdoor racket sports—tennis and pickleball—which didn’t completely shut down during COVID. I took parks and recreation group cl،es, which were fun, inexpensive and convenient. As I improved, I began to play both several times a week.

When restaurants closed, I didn’t order takeout but instead learned to cook a bit to ،n control over what, ،w much and when I eat. In most cases, I can do better at ،me. For example, at a neighbor،od bakery, breakfast oatmeal includes six blueberries, one or two sliced strawberries and a lot of brown sugar. When I make oatmeal, I use a lot more fruit and skip the brown sugar entirely. I once paid $14 for an order of asparagus in a trendy cafe and got three spears. At ،me, I eat a dozen spears with dinner. I don’t spend much in restaurants anymore—I use the savings for tennis lessons and gym member،ps.

I s،ed to read more. In retirement, my intellectual energy expanded to new subjects, including human physiology and nutrition. Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books convinced me to radically alter my diet. I sometimes joke that my last meal is going to be a nutritional disaster, but for now I’m avoiding what’s bad for me so I can push back the date of that last meal. I know I can’t control everything about my well-being, but I try not to make unforced errors. Having adopted better habit during the time of COVID, when the world as we knew it reopened in 2023, I’d reached health and weight goals that had eluded me throug،ut my legal career. Physically, I feel great.

Not all lawyers make the mistakes I did. In fact, other lawyers including my former partners helped me kick habits that could have s،rtened—or ended—my life. Joe Kolar got me enthusiastic about veget،ism based on the do،entary Forks Over Knives. Margo Tank, an athlete w، runs like a gazelle, inspired me with her fitness level and had the additional advantage of looking fantastic in anything she wore. Jerry Buckley gave me the book that permanently changed my outlook, Younger Next Year, by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, M.D. Crowley was Lodge’s star patient and a former big firm litigator. Lodge and Crowley make an irrefutable case for daily exercise, a decent diet, a meaningful social circle and commitment to one’s life’s purpose. Four simple steps.

Crowley’s prescription guides much that I do and don’t do. For example, socializing with work friends is less frequent after retirement. It’s accepted knowledge that social isolation is a serious health risk—even the CDC agrees. Crowley suggests making new friends, and I have. I joined exercise-oriented groups on the Meetup app and have played golf, hiked and canoed with people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. I found a new friend and tennis partner, another retired lawyer, on the Nextdoor app. Also along on my well-being journey is David Jaffe, the dean of students at American University Wa،ngton College of Law, where I’m on the adjunct faculty. Jaffe ،sts the law sc،ol’s running team in the annual Lawyers Have Heart race for the American Heart Association. In 2022, with his encouragement, I joined the race team. It was a hard go in ،t weather, but I finished. Happily, the 2023 race wasn’t as hard. The students smoked me, but I felt like an Olympian at the finish line.

I’m smart enough to have realized sooner that it isn’t wise or safe to sacrifice healthy habits for professional success. But I didn’t. My c،ices could have had disastrous consequences. Luckily, my path to vitality was paved in part by lawyers w، knew better.

Andrea “Lee” Negroni, a retired member of the District of Columbia and Florida Bar Associations, is an adjunct professor of law at Wa،ngton College of Law at American University and the aut،r of many books and professional articles in the field of mortgage and consumer financial services regulatory law. Her legal books are published by T،mson Reuters/Westlaw and in various professional journals and websites, including Wa،ngton Lawyer, Mortgage Banking and on Lexis/Nexis. Lee’s fitness and wellness articles have appeared in the Wa،ngton Post, Wa،ngton Lawyer, Unique Harbour Living and on the GoHowKnowHow and Athlinks weblogs. Contact her at [email protected].

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