GAZING AT HERSELF IN A FITTING-room mirror at Loehmann's department store in Los Angeles in the spring of 1993, Susan Estrich saw a failure. To the rest of the world she appeared to be a dynamo—a nationally prominent feminist law professor, author and political commentator. But alone, faced with her reflection, Estrich stared, dismayed, at a woman whose thighs wouldn't squeeze into size-14 slacks. "Not even close," she says. "I looked at myself and said, 'It's now or never.' "

Of course, Estrich had arrived at the same crossroads many times during the previous 25 years. But while she had the brains and spunk to ascend the power ladder, she had never been able to control her waistline. Until now. Fired up by her fitting-room declaration, Estrich went back to the dozens of diets she had tried, taking the pieces that seemed to work and building her own weight-loss plan. To make sure she would stick to it, she approached the diet like a lawyer, writing tautly worded briefs and behavioral contracts to stiffen her resolve. The verdict: Within five months the 5'6" Estrich had dropped from 165 lbs. down to 125.

Now Estrich, 45, has turned her personal trial of the century into Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women (Riverhead). And while some critics wonder why the author of respected texts on law would want to crank out a diet book, Estrich takes exception. "We've had smart women tell us not to care about our weight," she says. "But this isn't just some sexist male society's notion of beauty—it's mine. And there's not a woman alive who doesn't do better professionally when she's feeling good about herself. What's more, you stand to live a longer and healthier life."

Written with the same clarity that marks her legal analyses, Making the Case outlines the five-step diet Estrich used to drop her weight. As the author admits, her adaptations of popular cabbage soup diets and low-fat meal plans aren't original. But the lawyer's style of moral support—including lists of nonfattening diversions ("seduce someone"), self-enforced "contracts" to guard against backsliding, and instructions on how to cheat without going overboard (settle for a "lesser offense," like popcorn)—puts the familiar struggle of the will in a new light. "The diet is secondary," Estrich says. "This is a book about your head."

Which is where, Estrich always knew, her greatest strength lies. Born in 1952, the middle child of Irving, a lawyer, and Helen, who managed a cardiologist's office, Estrich made a reputation growing up in quaint Marble-head, Mass., as a remarkably bright student. "But she was always heavier than she wanted to be," recalls her sister Ruth, a 46-year-old insurance executive in Boston (younger brother Marc, 41, is a lawyer in Boston). Estrich focused on scholarship, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors at Wellesley and becoming the first woman to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review, in 1976. Raped while in college, Estrich used the experience for her book Real Rape, which is about victims' rights. She returned to Harvard to teach in 1981, remaining until 1987, when Michael Dukakis tapped Estrich, at 34, to be the first woman to manage a major presidential campaign.

Still, Estrich considered herself heavy and wasn't happy about it. She met Marty Kaplan, now an associate dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at USC in 1983 during Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. Married in 1986, they now live in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles with their children Isabel, 7, and James, 5. Kaplan recalls how a gesture as innocent as giving his wife a belt could seem hostile to her. "I thought she looked great, but that wasn't what she was feeling."

Delighted with her losses, Estrich nonetheless still has to fight daily temptations—like the jar of M&M's she found sitting next to her in a hotel lounge. "I had a few," she admits. Then, remembering what law school taught her about entrapment, Estrich picked up the jar and gave it a change of venue.

PETER AMES CARLIN
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto.