“And blame the postmodern things I can’t relate / Like summer camps in the coastal states / Like booze and coffee beans / Dance floors and magazines / I think it’s safe to say that I have only myself to blame.” – The format
This week I had the opportunity to meet Helen Wan, 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 in the series by Arden Cho) as she competes to climb the partner track at a New York law firm, established as a that original Netflix series last month.
I’ve covered the lack of diversity in the media time and time again (see here, here and here) so I won’t stray from the importance of representation for our industry in particular and for society as a whole .
Wan’s story, from the launch of his book to the landing of a Netflix original series, is a testament to his hard work, courage, and achievement of dreaming big. It was amazing to learn about the trajectory of the rockets and roller coasters (rocket-coaster) of “The Partnership Track” as well as the trials and tribulations she faced throughout her career.
After talking with Wan, I couldn’t help but want to write my own story. And I believe you will too after hearing more about her journey to bring her novel to our television screens. Without further ado, here is a (slightly edited and condensed) summary of our conversation:
Renwei Chung: You started writing “The Partner Track” 23 years ago, it was released in September 2013 and premiered on Netflix as an original TV series last month. Can you believe it?
Helene Wan: It has been an exciting roller coaster ride. To be honest, I still wake up some mornings not really believing it. It really is a Cinderella feeling at the ball.
RC: Can you tell us about the process of making the book on our living room screens?
HW: Sure, how long do you have? Ha. It only took me 23 years from the day I first picked up my pen, on my subway ride to and from work, to see these Parsons Valentine lawyers live and breathe on my television. . There were so many stops and starts along the way.
Even when an author is lucky enough to have a work published, let alone optioned, all the stars must line up to achieve a television series! And they didn’t, at least not for a long time.
In the morning, I received the amazing news from my agent: “Hi! Are you seated? I believe Netflix wants to make your book a show! Honestly, I had almost canceled the possibility. I never really imagined all the stars aligning the way they did, for this to happen.
So when I finally curled up and watched all 10 episodes of the show one recent weekend, it was magical. It was the kind of smart, sexy, savvy show that, if I had stumbled across it one night while looking for something new to watch, I honestly would have loved it too. And it was a happy thing to find out.
RC: What was your inspiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s epigraph: “I wouldn’t like to be the only woman in court.
HW: Oh, I’ve always loved that quote from the Notorious RBG. His life and legal career have already made him a model. But this epigraph is significant to me for another reason.
I dedicated “The Partner Track” to the memory of my grandmother, An Ching Chun, who was 14 years older than RBG. Both were amazing, incredibly smart, resilient women who inspired me.
By chance, one of them fled the Chinese communist revolution as a very young mother and finally landed as a foreigner in Mei Guo (literally translated: “beautiful country”) and the other is finally became a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I really enjoy writing about timing and circumstances, and how they impact life outcomes.
RC: It’s still so rare to see a female AAPI protagonist on TV or in movies. How can we get more of these stories told in Hollywood and mainstream media?
HW: This one is easy. You have to follow the walk AND talk the conversation. Which means that if you really like something, and you believe it’s a story worth telling, and you wish there were more stories like that, ahead eyeballs, then you have to put your money where your mouth is.
Watch the show. Buy the book. Go see the play or the movie. And tell all your friends and neighbours! I know it’s not popular to say that, but the truth is that making art IS also a business.
RC: You mentioned 1988 film “Working Girl” as a strong influence on some of the themes of “The Partner Track”. Can you elaborate?
HW: Oh, I could go on all day on this awesome movie! Talk about a dream team consisting of director Mike Nichols (who also directed another of my favorite movies, “The Graduate”), Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Joan Cusack, and the list goes on. In fact, I just saw it again recently. Nearly 35 years later, it still strikes such a cultural chord.
I think everyone loves a great Cinderella story, especially when our hero is so presumably flawed and vulnerable, and underrated. I mean, who wants to read (or write!) about a perfect person, who never makes mistakes? Boring!
That ending scene, when Tess meets her new assistant, walks into her new office, takes a dizzying first spin in her swivel chair, and that beautiful Carly Simon song swells and the camera blows over a view of the whole city, me always gets . Everytime. This film is also a cinematic valentine for New York, which I love.
RC: You read a snippet of the summer outing scene during your interview with Sunni Yuen, a member of Google’s legal department in January 2014. It’s featured in episode 5 “Out of Office” – what did you did you feel when you saw this scene on the television screen?
HW: The Firm Retirement was my favorite chapter to write, and now it’s my favorite episode of the show (Episode 5: “Out of Office”). I watched it and literally laughed, cried, it was better than “Cats”. I took the remote and saw it again immediately. Then I called Georgia (Lee) to tell her how much I loved it.
I still find 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 in your book, as well as three references to Audrey Hepburn. How well do you think the Netflix series captures legal culture and book fashion influences and references?
HW: I was impressed with how this show takes a book about a law firm and turns it into an entertaining “TV show”!!! Yet it still captures the most vexing themes and topics that I tried to tackle with my novel. I think it’s a pretty successful combination of “Hollywood entertainment” and verisimilitude.
It is, after all, a television series that seeks to entertain and enlighten. And who wants to watch a “100% authentic” show about, say, me writing an asset purchase agreement at 2 a.m. at my desk, eating takeout in my gray college hoodies? I mean, I personally think it would be a really, really boring TV show. Ha ha.
RC: I’ve heard many law schools and professors benefit from the series premiere last month. “The Partner Track,” based on a book published nearly a decade ago, to teach current lessons to this year’s 1Ls and other legal cohorts. why do you think “The partner track” struck such a chord in the legal community?
HW: Yeah, I hear a lot of law professors and legal partners and just people in general telling me that my novel was maybe a little “ahead of its time”.
I think what they mean is that we’re clearly at a different cultural time right now, a critical time where a lot more people are ready to read, listen and talk about stories like this. ‘Ingrid. And Tyler’s. And even Murph’s. And I hope we will have the opportunity to continue to tell these stories! There is a lot more story to tell.
RC: Of course, I have to mention the A.1. sauce scene! Are you getting as many responses today as when the book was published?
HW: Yes, I certainly hear a lot of readers, and now viewers, for whom this A.1. The sauce scene resonates. And I’m not just talking about lawyers and law students.
I think everyone has their own A.1. Sauce Moment at some point in their lives, right? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt like “The Outsider” in one way or another. Not even, dare I say it, Dan Fallon!
RC: Any advice for someone who wants to combine a legal career with a creative side?
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 want to thank Helen Wan for sharing her story with our audience. We wish him much success in his career. Helen can be reached through her website: www.helenwan.com, Twitter @helenwan1and Representation: [email protected]
Renwei Chung is the DEI columnist at Above the Law. You can contact him by email at [email protected].