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Helen Wan, attorney and author of The Partner Track, on the release of her Biglaw novel on Netflix

Helen Wan, author of THE PARTNER TRACK

Author Helen Wan (photo courtesy)

“And blame postmodern things I don’t understand / Like summer camps in coastal states / Like booze and coffee beans / Dance floors and magazines / I guess it’s safe to say I blamed only myself.” – The format

This week I had the opportunity to meet with Helen Wan – an author, lawyer and speaker on DEI and women in the workplace.

Wan is a graduate of Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Wan’s novel The Partner Track follows idealistic young lawyer Ingrid (played by Arden Cho on the series) as she struggles to climb the ranks of a New York law firm’s partner track, which premiered last month as the Netflix original series.

I have repeatedly reported on the lack of diversity in the media (see here, here and here) so I will not digress on how important representation is to our industry in particular and society as a whole.

Wan’s story, from publishing her book to landing an original Netflix series, is a testament to her hard work, courage, and realization to dream big. It was incredible to learn about the trajectory of the rocket ship and roller coaster from The Partnership Track, and the trials and tribulations she has faced throughout her career.

After speaking to Wan, I couldn’t help but want to write my own story. And I think you will too, after hearing more about her journey, to bring her novel to our TV screens. Without further ado, here is a (slightly edited and condensed) summary of our conversation:

Renwei Chung: You began writing The Partner Track 23 years ago, which was released in September 2013 and premiered as an Original TV Series on Netflix last month. Can you believe it?

Helen Wan: This was an exciting roller coaster ride. To be honest, I still wake up some mornings and don’t believe any of it. It’s a Cinderella-on-the-ball feeling.

RC: Can you explain the process of bringing the book to life on our living room screens?

HW: Sure how much time do you have? Ha. It was only 23 years from the day I originally took pen to paper on my subway commute to and from work that I saw these Parsons Valentine attorneys live and breathing on my television. There were so many stops and starts along the way.

Even if an author is lucky enough to have a work published, let alone an option, all the stars have to pull together to end up with a TV series! And they didn’t, at least not for a long time.

In the morning I received the amazing message from my agent: “Hello! Sit down? I think Netflix wants to make a show out of your book!” To be honest, I had almost written off the opportunity. I had never really imagined all the stars aligning the way they did for this to happen.

When I finally curled up and watched all 10 episodes of the series one recent weekend, it was magical. It was the kind of smart, sexy, savvy show that I honestly would have loved even back then if I had stumbled upon it one night while looking for something new to watch. And that was a lucky thing to find out.

RC: What was your inspiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s inscription: “I don’t want to be the only woman on the court.”

HW: Oh I always loved this quote from Notorious RBG. Her life and her legal career already made her a role model. But this inscription is important to me for another reason.

I dedicated The Partner Track to my grandmother, An Ching Chun, who was 14 years older than RBG. Both were amazing, incredibly intelligent, resilient women who inspired me.

Due to circumstances, one of them fled the Chinese Communist Revolution when she was a very young mother and ended up as a stranger in Mei Guo (literally, the “beautiful country”), and the other eventually became a judge of the United States Supreme Court. I enjoy writing a lot about timing and circumstances and how they affect life outcomes.

RC: It’s still so rare to see a female AAPI protagonist on TV or in the movies. How can we ensure more of these stories get told in Hollywood and the media in general?

HW: That’s easy. You have to walk AND talk. That said, if you really love something and believe it’s a story worth telling, and wish there were more stories like this to come before your eyes, then you need your money insert where your mouth is.

Watch the broadcast. Buy the book. Watch the play or the film. And tell all your friends and neighbors! I know it’s not popular to say, but the truth is, making art IS a business too.

RC: You mentioned the 1988 Movie Working Girl as a strong influence on some of the themes in The Partner Track. Can you explain that in more detail?

HW: Oh I could talk about this brilliant film all day! Talk about a dream crew of director Mike Nichols (who also directed another of my favorite films, The Graduate), Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Joan Cusack and the list goes on. Actually, I recently re-watched it. Almost 35 years later, it still strikes such a cultural chord.

I think everyone loves a great Cinderella story, especially when our hero is so believably flawed and vulnerable and underrated. I mean, who wants to read (or write!) about a perfect human being who never makes mistakes? Boring!

That final scene, when Tess meets her new assistant, walks into her new office, takes a dizzying first lap in her swivel chair, and that beautiful Carly Simon song swells and the camera hovers over the whole city still grabs me. every time This film is also a cinematic Valentine’s Day for New York City, which I love.

RC: You read a clip of the summer trip scene during your interview with Sunni Yuen, a member of Google’s legal department, in January 2014. He’s in Episode 5 “Out of Home” – how did it feel to witness that scene on the TV screen?

HW: Hard Retreat was my favorite chapter of my writing and now it’s my favorite episode of the series (episode 5: “Out of Office”). I watched it and literally laughed, cried, it was better than “Cats”. I picked up the remote and immediately looked at it again. Then I called Georgia (Lee) to tell her how much I loved it.

I still catch myself humming that beautiful Lake Scene song when Rachel and Justin are stranded on the water. It’s called “Around Here” by a really talented singer-songwriter named Matt Holubowski and I think his music adds the perfect context to that setting.

RC: I noted three references to Above the Law and three references to Audrey Hepburn in your book. How well do you think the Netflix series captures the legal culture and fashion influences and references of the book?

HW: I was struck by the way this show takes a book about a law firm and turns it into an entertaining TV SHOW!!! Nonetheless, it still captures the more thorny issues and issues that I wanted to address with my novel. I think it’s a pretty good combination of “Hollywood entertainment” and veracity.

After all, it is a television series that aims to entertain and educate. And who wants to see a “100% authentic” show where I’m at my desk at 2 am, say, drafting an asset purchase agreement and eating takeout in my gray college sweatshirts? I mean, personally I think that would be a really, really boring TV show. Haha.

RC: I’ve heard a lot of law schools and professors are taking advantage of the series premiere last month The Partner Track,” based on a book published almost a decade ago to bring timely lessons to this year’s 1Ls and other legal cohorts. Why do you think “The partner track‘ struck such a nerve in the legal world?

HW: Yes, I hear from many legal professionals and associates, and just people in general, telling me that my novel may have been a little bit ahead of its time.

I think what they mean is that we’re clearly in a different cultural moment right now, a critical moment where a lot more people are willing to both read and hear and talk about stories like Ingrid’s. And Tyler’s. And even Murphs. And I hope we get the chance to continue telling these stories! There is much more to tell.

RC: Of course I have to address that A.1. sauce scene! Do you get as many reactions to it now as you did when the book was published?

HW: Yes, I’m definitely hearing from many readers and now TV viewers for whom the A.1. Sauce scene resonates. And I don’t just mean lawyers and law students.

I think everyone has their own A.1. Sauce moment at some point in her life, right? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt like an “outsider” in one way or another. Not even, dare I say it, Dan Fallon!

RC: Any advice for someone trying to balance a legal career with a creative side job?

HW: Never assume it’s impossible. If you really believe in the project, don’t give up. I’m glad I didn’t.

On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, I would like to thank Helen Wan for sharing her story with our audience. We wish her continued success in her career. Helen can be contacted through her website: www.helenwan.com, Twitter @helenwan1and agency: [email protected]


Renwei Chung is a DEI columnist at Above the Law. You can reach him via email at [email protected].

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