The Partner Track
Author: Helen Wan
The Partner Track (St. Martin’s Press, September 17) by corporate and media lawyer Helen Wan is a smart women’s fiction novel that portrays the underlying role of diversity and discrimination in corporate America. Wan eloquently tells the story of Ingrid Yung, an eighth year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm who is on her way to becoming partner. The partner track is not an easy road for Yung, as it presents her with several real-life obstacles because of her gender and race. Ultimately, Ingrid must choose between succumbing to the societal pressures of a law firm that consists of a good old boys network and the American dream she has always imagined.
My office was on the thirty-first floor, along with those of the other senior M&A associates. Hunter’s office was the first I passed on my way from the elevator bank. Hunter F. Russell, read the polished brass nameplate. Next to Hunter was Murph, and next to Murph was a seventh-year named Todd Ames, who’d had his name legally changed from Abramowicz while still in law school. For ease of spelling, I’d once heard him explain.
Hunter, Murph, and Todd’s offices were all clustered together on the good side of the building, in a stretch of hallway known as Fraternity Row. They had scored these sweet offices with their panoramic views by flirting shamelessly with the firm’s office logistics coordinator, Liz Borkofsky. It was rumored that Liz had taken this job in hopes of snagging a male attorney, any male attorney, on track for partner. Finally, last winter, she’d gotten engaged to the firm’s slightly shy, balding director of I.T. The joke went around the office that Liz had slept her way to the middle.
I rounded the corner and got to my own office. It was nice enough, but it faced Madison Avenue, not the park. I’d tried to make it a comfortable place to spend my waking hours, since we did spend almost all of them here. I’d brought in a cheerful vase that I kept filled with fresh flowers. Vintage travel posters for the walls. And a framed photograph of the Manhattan skyline that I’d once taken from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Margo was just getting back from her lunch break. Ridiculously, secretaries were not allowed to eat in the attorney dining room. Margo brought sandwiches from home and ate them in the park.
“Hey, Margo,” I said. “How is it outside?”
“Hot and crowded,” she said, sighing. “All those European tourists, you know. They get the whole damn summer off.”
I loved Margo. She was one of the best secretaries at Parsons Valentine and I was lucky to have her. (I’d lobbied to call her my “assistant” instead of “secretary,” but this had been roundly vetoed by the partners, for setting the wrong kind of precedent.) As a young associate, I’d had a few rocky starts with secretaries who hadn’t worked out, like chain-smoking Dolores who had complimented my “very good English” the first time I’d dictated a letter. Explaining that I’d been born in Maryland didn’t help. After a few more choice comments – I’ve never been a big fan of sushi, no offense – I finally mentioned it to Human Resources, and Dolores had been swiftly reassigned to another practice group. The firm knew a walking liability when it saw one.
“No messages, but here’s your afternoon mail.” Margo handed me a stack of interoffice envelopes, the library routing copies of The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and The New York Law Journal, along with a dues notice from the City Bar Association.
The phone on her desk rang. Margo glanced at it and signaled to me that it was my line. I leaned one hip against the ledge in front of her desk and waited, rifling through my mail.
“Good afternoon. Ms. Yung’s office,” Margo said into the receiver. “Hold on, please, I’ll check.” She clicked on the mute button and blinked up at me. “Are you here for Marty Adler?”
Everyone was here for Marty Adler. “I’ll take it in my office.”
“She’ll be right with him,” said Margo to Marty Adler’s secretary.
I walked into my office, nudged the door closed with my heel, and tossed my mail onto the credenza. A tingly adolescent glee bubbled up inside me. He called!
I sat down in my black swivel chair and grapevined my legs around so that I was facing out the window. I took a moment to compose myself. Never mind Murph’s warning at lunch about a “monster deal.” I was very pleased that Adler was calling me. I had worked on a few small projects with him before, but they hadn’t been any of his really high-profile deals. I’d dealt mainly with his senior associate and not Adler himself. But now, in my eighth year, I was the senior associate on my deals.
And associates were rarely called personally by Marty Adler to work on anything. This was news.
I cleared my throat and said in the mellifluous voice I reserved for partners and clients, “Hi, Marty, how are you?”
“Hold on,” said a woman’s gravelly smoker voice. “I’ll get him.”
What an amateur mistake. Of course Adler would be the type of man who waited until his secretary got me on the line before getting on himself. At eleven hundred twenty-five dollars an hour, his time was valuable.
There was a beep, followed by Marty Adler himself. “Ingrid, hello,” he said. His voice was deep and growly, yet I had always thought there was something kind about it, too. I rather liked it.
“So,” he continued without preamble, “I’m wondering about your availability this month. Do you have any time coming up?”
“Well, Marty, I – “
“I’ll tell you why I ask,” he continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. “There’s a high- worth, highly confidential acquisition that’s just come in to the office. Their usual M&A counsel got conflicted out, so this is a big win for us. It’s going to require a great deal of time and attention, and I’d be very grateful if you would be on my team.” This was a funny quirk about partners in law firms: when telling you to do something, they often said I’d be very grateful, as if you had a choice in the matter.
“Of course,” Adler went on, “the client wants it done yesterday. This deal’s on a rush timetable, so I’d need you to focus on it as your top priority. That is, if you are able to take it on.” He paused a moment to let this sink in. He knew exactly what kind of opportunity he was dangling in front of me.
Chances to shine in front of Marty Adler didn’t come along every day, especially not mere weeks before your partnership vote. “I’d love to be on your team, Marty.”
“Wonderful,” he said, completely unsurprised. “Why don’t you come on up to my office then, and I’ll fill you in on the deal.”
“I’ll be right there,” I said, and hung up.
I did a happy dance in my swivel chair, spinning three full revolutions. I stopped and tilted my chair all the way back, feeling dizzy but exhilarated. Taking a few deep breaths to calm myself down, I gazed at the smooth cherry bookcases that lined an entire wall of my office.
I loved these shelves. They were home to the stacks and stacks of deal books I’d accumulated from every transaction I’d ever worked: mergers, asset purchases, asset sales, stock purchases, stock sales, all cash deals, all stock deals, stock swaps, recaps, roll-ups, reverse triangular mergers, forward backhanded mergers, around-the-ankle, behind-the-back, over-the-shoulder mergers. You could easily lose track of the names and hundreds of ways these deals could be structured. Half of this job was simply learning how to lob these terms around as casually as tennis balls.
I loved the closing of every deal. I could feel the power and influence that coursed through these conference rooms like electrical currents high atop the city. I loved listening to closing dinner toasts at Jean Georges or La Grenouille at the very moment that gazillions of dollars, or yen, or euros, were originating from somewhere and landing, through the miracle of wire transfer, in our clients’ bank accounts halfway around the globe. It was thrilling, the promise of such a world.
The Partner Track
Q&A With Helen Wan
Well, I’m a full-time lawyer and I’m Chinese-American. My first job after law school was in fact being a corporate associate at a big law firm in Manhattan. But this book is decidedly fiction—thank goodness! I left my big firm after about a year to work in media and entertainment law. Parsons Valentine isn’t modeled after any particular law firm, but is essentially an amalgam of many big white-shoe firms, banks or corporations where I or my minority friends and colleagues have worked. Our experiences at these places have been remarkably similar.
That said, the idea for this book began indirectly as non-fiction. I thought I would write a collection of essays about being a minority woman in a corporate job. (I’d published a few articles in The Washington Post while in law school and this had given me a little courage, some idea that it was possible.) Not surprisingly, nobody was interested in a bunch of essays from an unknown twenty-five-year-old who toiled away at a law firm. Finally I signed up for an “Intro to Fiction Writing” class at the Asian-American Writers Workshop. The pages I wrote for that class became the seed for this novel.
What were the challenges you faced in getting this book published?
Ha, ha. How much time have you got?
Being a full-time lawyer while trying to write, revise, and find an agent and publisher for a first novel is an obvious challenge. I wrote this book in fits and starts: in bits of stolen time, at odd hours, on the rare weekend off. I hoarded my precious four weeks of vacation every year and then spent them holed up far away from the city, my BlackBerry off, churning out new chapters. Contrary to how I operate as a lawyer, I do not write fiction in any consistent, methodical, organized way. I wrote this novel in big, infrequent bursts of late-night or early-morning activity, unshowered, my hair in a messy ponytail, empty Diet Coke cans scattered everywhere.
As a writer, did you think of things such as category and market?
A lot of people weren’t quite sure how to categorize—read: market—this novel. The protagonist was Asian-American, so was it an “ethnic” novel? But the setting was contemporary and urban, so was it “chick lit”? At one particularly low point during the submission process, I kept waking up at four-forty (always four-forty, for some reason) to mull over all my rejections. Too commercial. Not commercial enough. Too literary. Not literary enough. And so on. One agent from a very well-known literary agency had phoned to say she loved my writing, but one of her “pet peeves” was that young minority writers always felt the need to write about their ethnicity in their first novel, and had I ever considered rewriting my book, but not from the point of view of a minority? (Answer: Um, no.) Happily, I then found the right agent and editor who both get it!
Who do you think the audience is for THE PARTNER TRACK?
Well, the obvious answer is probably young professional women. But I’d also like to think the story also has resonance for any man or woman who’s ever had to work hard at fitting in to a corporate culture, or any culture or environment that feels foreign to them, and that makes them question who they really are, what it is they really want, and what the things are that are ultimately worth striving for.