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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


A lawyer veers into fiction and fierceness

Helen Wan was a bit late for coffee at the Able Baker, but she had a good reason: The trailer for the Netflix series based on her novel had just dropped. It is neither every day nor everyone who gets a television series made of a first book, and Wan was visibly excited: She arrived phone in hand, video downloaded and ready to share. It was a winning combination, a successful woman of substance behaving as a good friend might on a particularly fine day in her life.

It seems entirely in keeping with the woman we come to know in The Partner Track, Wan’s novel: a young, open-hearted, sometimes guileless lawyer and first-generation Chinese American who is talented, ambitious, and constantly made aware of her otherness as she negotiates her career at a white-shoe law firm in Manhattan. It’s a woman readers cheer for. The 10-episode series was made available all at once in late August.

Like her protagonist, Wan is a lawyer whose first job was at one of the big law firms in New York. She also felt like a fish out of water there. Unlike her heroine, Ingrid Yung, Wan began writing about it. “I was in this world that felt totally foreign to me,” she recalls. “I felt it was good mental therapy for me to have this outlet.”

Her journal took note of the alliances that formed in the firm’s cafeteria, where the table at which you sat spoke both to your person and your ambitions. She wrote about experiences that revealed privilege, and the lack of it, and of how devastating a misstep revealing one’s humble beginnings could be. She considered why she had been the one chosen to meet with a group of visiting Japanese lawyers.

Helen Wan's novel, The Partner Track
Helen Wan's novel, The Partner Track, was recently made into a Netflix series.

Eventually Wan thought about publishing her journal as a sort of self-help book for young professionals who were not white and male and descended from money. She had been made aware of how little her elite education had done to prepare her for the world in which she found herself. “You take all the talented people and you just throw them into serious jobs in the corporate environment,” she explains. She felt many were as unprepared as she, and doomed to failure. She wanted to help.

Wan got good feedback on what she had written. She also got some advice. Turn it into a novel. She’d attract more readers. “For a lot of years I didn’t listen to that advice,” she says ruefully.

But over time, the idea took root. Wan attended a fiction writing workshop and began making time for writing even as she continued to work. She moved from the big corporate law firm to one that specialized in media law and from there became in-house counsel at Time/Warner. Finally, in 2013, more than a decade after she had begun scribbling notes as therapy, her novel The Partner Track was published.

And all along that long and winding road, Wan had redefined herself.

“It wasn’t that I hated being a lawyer or anything like that”’ she confesses. “I just knew that wasn’t my passion.”

At Amherst, Wan had been an English major who loved working with words. But like many first-generation Americans, she felt she ought to seek a professional post. Medicine and engineering were out; her love of words helped her on the LSAT and so, high score in hand, she opted for law school. To save money, she went in-state to the University of Virginia. (She grew up in Northern Virginia. Her parents, who emigrated from Taiwan in the early ‘60s, both worked for the federal government.)

She got an inkling of another kind at the University of Virginia: She was a minority. She remembers attending an early class and being startled as she looked around. Most of the faces were white and male. “I just remember sitting in class thinking, ‘There’s no diversity in perspective.’”

Arden Cho
Arden Cho plays Wan's protagonist, Ingrid Yun, in the Netflix series, Partner Track.

The Partner Track is eminently readable, and a bit of a love story. The heroine is successful and acclimated to American life; she is not Amy Tan, Wan says with a laugh, drawing a distinction between her writing and that of another author who writes about the disconnect between immigrant parents and their children.

But for all its smarts and plot twists, it also is a political book, strewn here and there with palpable anger and not-so-subtle images of the racism and sexism that permeate corporate America; the heroine may be something of a reluctant warrior for the cause, but she is a warrior nonetheless.

Asked if she considered the book in these terms, Wan is adamant that she did. “I don’t mind taking that on because that was part of my purpose in writing...It was to give voice to that perspective.”

After the novel was published, Wan was often invited to speak to other lawyers and to law school students about her experiences. “Her debut book, a witty yet pointed exploration of the difficulties Asian Americans have advancing in corporate culture, has clearly exposed a nerve,” the Washington Post reported in a cover story about her in 2014. “The eager response from readers sent it back for a second printing after an initial run of 50,000 in September, a rare achievement for a first-time author.”

In the years since, Wan has continued to speak to lawyers and lawyers-in-training. She thinks things have changed for the better. Recalling a recent visit to talk to law students at the University of Pennsylvania, she reports that students constantly discuss diversity, both within the profession and at specific big law firms. “They are very, very savvy about these issues,” she says.

Wan, too, has evolved. Although still technically employed as a lawyer, she has taken a leave of absence while promoting the Netflix series. She is at work on a second novel, this one not set in the corporate world but among a group of friends, all of whom are smart and ambitious and have taken different paths to try to live their best and fullest lives. “During the past several years every single person I know has had to kind of take stock,” Wan recounts. The newest book is an attempt to explore how those different personal and professional decisions reverberate.

Directors Chair
The series was shot at an office tower in midtown Manhattan not far from the first firm where Wan worked. This director's chair is from the actual set

But her newest novel also progresses in fits and starts because of ongoing personal and professional commitments. On top of everything, Wan is now a suburban wife and mother, whose 9-year-old son, Alexander, is about to start fourth grade. The family moved to Maplewood from Fort Greene in 2014, after searching in suburbs around the city for some time. “It actually turned out to be a fairly easy decision,” Wan says. They had explored many areas but nothing felt right.

“We were kind of like, hmmm, maybe we’ll just stay in Brooklyn. Finally, some friends who were creative types said, ‘Have you looked at Maplewood, New Jersey?’” The family visited and liked the vibe.

The deal was sealed, however, when Wan and her husband, Andy, an evolutionary scientist, took Alex to the playground at the Jefferson School (now renamed Delia Bolden). There was a group of kids playing there, involved in some sort of imaginary game.

“It’s every man for himself!” one little boy shouted.

To which another boy responded, “Or every woman for herself.”

“I think that’s literally how we chose Maplewood as the town,” Wan reports, adding that all of her friends here “have a story like that.”

Everyone here may have a story. But not everyone thinks to write it down.

Tia Swanson’s workplace novel would feature children, lots of them.


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