It has been a whirlwind year for Helen Wan following the release of her first novel, “The Partner Track,” fashioned from her own experience as a young, Chinese-American woman in Big Law.
Wan has traveled the country to speak at law firms, law schools, legal conferences and for corporate America.
In March, she left her job as an in-house lawyer at Time Inc. to focus on writing her second book — which she expects to take much less time than the 12 years she spent crafting her first novel and then finding a mainstream publisher for it.
She also took a two-week trip to Vietnam, accompanying her husband, a primatologist, to a national meeting of scientists who, like him, study the evolution of primates.
“The Partner Track” follows the struggle of a fictional character, Ingrid Yung, but that hasn’t stopped it from starting a real conversation about race, gender and how they affect a climb up the Big Law ladder.
In fact, Wan said the book’s fictional nature has provided a level of comfort to engage in a conversation that some might find easier to avoid.
“No one needs to be on the defensive. It’s a story,” Wan said before adding with a laugh, “Amazon calls it a ‘legal thriller.’”
It will be published in paperback on Tuesday by Macmillan, complete with a discussion guide and questions to help groups to talk through the book’s themes.
Wan spoke with the Daily Law Bulletin in advance of her Sept. 12 appearance at the American Bar Association Business Law Section annual meeting, held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
Law Bulletin: What are some of the questions that have come up at these events?
Wan: There’s a lot of very candid conversation around, basically, the choices that diverse attorneys have to make all the time — strategies of assimilation versus a more activist-type path.
And also questions about it being a two-way street. In other words, yes, the firm or employer has to look around and confront the implicit or unconscious biases that may be informing their staffing, promotion and hiring decisions.
But at the same time, it is a two-way street, so the junior attorney him or herself needs to make sure they’re taking the right kinds of initiatives and educated risks and putting themselves in a place where they will be visible at a firm or company.
LB: You have been a speaker at big law firms, gone to diversity seminars — I heard your book even inspired a cocktail at a New York City bar …
Wan: (Laughing) It did. And I just learned, actually, that the TV rights have been optioned, which was exciting for me.
LB: Is that right?
Wan: Yes. Twelve years ago, if you would have told me that somebody would possibly have wanted to develop a television series around the boring and unglamorous life I was leading as a large law firm associate, I would have laughed.
LB: Among all the events you’ve been a part of, is there anywhere you’ve been, discussion you’ve had or person you’ve met that especially stands out?
Wan: I really, really enjoyed the law school audiences very much. Just because the students are very, very inspiring. It’s very nice to meet all these bright young people who are asking much smarter questions than I knew to ask about potential employers back when I was in their shoes.
And, truly, since we last spoke, I’ve spoken at a bunch of the larger, bigger and broader audiences, but the standouts, the ones that mean the most to me, are when I meet young lawyers or young law students who tell me that this was the first time they were able to read a book about them — it spoke to them or made them feel at home. Those are the best interactions with readers to me.
LB: You have left Time Inc. to focus on writing the sequel. Do you miss the day-to-day practice of law?
Wan: People ask me that a lot. People raise their hand and say, ‘Is there anything you miss about full-time lawyering?’ The truth is that there is. I miss having the camaraderie and having smart colleagues down the hall to speak with.
Fiction writing is a very, very solitary activity. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, I do miss having the structure of the day — an office to go to, a regular routine, the knowledge that at 9:30 a.m. you are expected to be at this particular place and clients are relying on you.
I actually do miss some of that daily structure, and I don’t think that’s too surprising for a lot of lawyers.
LB: There are a lot of attorneys who fancy themselves writers or who want to write a novel. What advice would you give to someone who thinks they have that inside them?
Wan: That doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m not surprised there are a lot of lawyers with sort of half-finished manuscripts lying around somewhere.
And the reason for that is if their thinking for going to law school in the first place was anything like mine, then their thought was: “If given my druthers, sure, I would have loved to try my hand at writing the great American novel right off the bat.”
Growing up the child of Chinese immigrant parents, that did not seem practical to me. I, as a senior in college, asked myself what I loved to do. I said I love words.
And somehow, there’s this romantic notion that lawyers are story-tellers. And I think that that is the kind of logic that leads a lot of English majors like myself to go to law school. That’s my personal theory.
But the best two pieces of advice that I got? No. 1 was write the novel that you would most like to read. The book that you think is missing from the shelves of your favorite bookstore. And for me, this was that story. I was not seeing any credible, contemporary stories out there about young lawyers, particularly female lawyers trying to make it on the corporate ladder … that advice was really pertinent to me.
And then the second piece of advice came from the wonderful journalist-writer Anna Quindlen, who is one of my favorite writers. She had been a keynote speaker, ironically, at an alumni women’s event held by my old law firm. And someone asked her this question.
She said the best advice I could give is basically make sure that you are someone who actually wants to write and not someone who wants to have written something.
If I thought this was an important story to be out there in bookstores, then I needed to put my money where my mouth was and sit down and write the thing. And that’s when I started writing in earnest.
LB: Can you give us an update on how writing the second book is going?
Wan: I’m really enjoying delving into a whole new cast of characters. The second book is not a direct sequel to “The Partner Track.” However, it is a deeper dive into some of the key themes, which are people’s complicated relationship with ambition itself and how these external factors influence people’s pursuit of happiness.