In celebration of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Morrison Foerster’s Haima Marlier was joined in conversation with Helen Wan, speaker, lawyer, and author of The Partner Track, which has been adapted to a Netflix series.
Before becoming an author and consultant, Helen practiced media law in New York, first at law firms before becoming in-house counsel at companies including Time Inc. and A&E Television Networks. Most recently, she was VP and Associate General Counsel at Hachette Book Group USA.
The Partner Track is the story of an Asian American woman competing for partnership in the unfamiliar corporate culture of an elite law firm. Helen writes and speaks most frequently about the ways that race, gender, privilege, socioeconomic class, family, and culture impact ambition and our pursuit of happiness.
Helen drew inspiration for her novel from her experiences as an Asian American woman in a predominantly white and male work environment. Before practicing media law, she began her career as an M&A associate at a large corporate law firm. During this time, she observed patterns of disparate treatment toward and among her peers, such as social group dynamics and mentor-mentee pairings within the firm. Helen would write these observations down during her subway commute to and from work and eventually shared them with a trusted group of friends, many of whom were having similar experiences in their own workplaces. Noting that there were few stories told from that perspective, her friends encouraged her to get published.
Through one of its main conflicts, the novel examines intersectionality and the relationship of the AAPI community to other marginalized communities. Following a racist performance by a fellow associate during a company outing, Ingrid—the novel’s protagonist—is charged with spearheading diversity initiatives to help improve the firm’s image. While Ingrid’s experience is not unique to law firms, Helen felt it was important to write about those experiences and portray how they affected Ingrid and her professional relationships. “Tasked as the minority poster person to carry the flag, it was very important for me to write about because in my own life I found that I would gravitate toward other associates who were also being asked to take on similar flag-carrying roles.”
Looking back, Helen believes that the legal industry has evolved in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) since she began her career. She attributes this to the rising popularity of conversations surrounding DEI. “Now it’s very ‘in’ to talk about race and gender issues and, encouragingly, it’s expanding beyond that as well,” she said. “But obviously there’s still a lot more work to be done.”
Many of the characters in The Partner Track struggle with imposter syndrome and the pressure to conform to expectations. “Ingrid is succeeding by all external metrics but yet, when she’s by herself, feels very isolated,” Helen said. “I know so many people who felt that way at their jobs. They were succeeding, they were supposed to be at the top but still played with such insecurities.” Her advice to young lawyers who may also struggle with imposter syndrome: take educated risks, and don’t be afraid to ask for more opportunities. “Other people are not mind readers,” she said.
The primary message Helen hopes readers take away from The Partner Track is, even if you are excelling, make certain that the goals established for you are ones you actually want to achieve. “Just because you can collect all these gold stars, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to collect every single one,” Helen said. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Learn more about Helen Wan and her novel.