Time Associate GC Helen Wan talks about her ‘unvarnished look’ at the legal industry

The Partner Track follows a young associate who deals with gender, race and legal dilemma issues in her firm

Ever try writing a book? Like 99 percent of lawyers, the answer is most likely “No.” For the remaining 1 percent, that book was likely a self-help guide, or a non-fiction look into the law industry.

But, to be fair, there aren’t many in-house lawyers quite like Time, Inc. Associate General Counsel Helen Wan.

After a labor of love spanning 12 years, Wan has recently released her first book, a novel titled The Partner Track. In the novel, a young associate, Ingrid Yung, rises through the ranks while dealing with the gender, race and legal dilemma issues that come with every law department across the country.

Previously an associate herself at the law firms Frankfurt Kurnit & Selz, P.C. and Paul, Weiss, Rifind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Wan says the inspiration from the book comes from conversations with friends over the struggles they encountered in the legal industry. Originally intended to be a collection of non-fiction essays, she instead decided to focus on a fictionalized story after conversations with editors.

“A lot of the feedback I was getting was, ‘OK, love the writing, love the characters, and love the theme because it’s timely and topical,’” Wan said. But she says those marketing the book couldn’t figure out, “‘is it a legal thriller? Is it an ethic novel? Is it women’s issues? What is it?’”

But Wan says it’s all of those things: It’s a real life novel. And despite painting what she calls an “unvarnished look” of the law industry, Wan says that book’s themes have taken hold in firms across the country. After originally planning to speak with just one or two firms on the issues of diversity and growth in the workplace, the author now says she’s receiving calls from all over the country.

“The overwhelmingly warm and enthusiastic embrace from especially law firms has been a really happy surprise,” Wan said. “The response from law students might have been more expected than the equally warm response from law firms.”

She says that writing a book was a “childhood dream,” but she wouldn’t have been able to get to this point without the help of writing classes and some pointed suggestions by editors. In combining writing with a busy job as an in house counsel as well as raising an 11-month old son, Wan says that the hard deadlines set by classes and editors were a life saver in actually completing her work.

“I am no example to follow, because I did it very inefficiently. That’s why it took me 12 years,” Wan said, laughing. “I, like many lawyers, am someone who works best under deadline. So I found it extremely helpful to be in a writer’s group… when I signed up, I felt like I was really buying that externally imposed deadline.”

Having a day job at one of the largest media companies in the United States hasn’t exactly hurt her cause, either. Unlike many other media companies, where the legal division is fully separate from the media side of the business, Wan says that her fellow Time employees were instrumental in helping the book get completed.

“[Time] has writers as a large, large percentage of the employee base,” Wan said. “It’s true, most of the time that doesn’t overlap with your legal department, but in my case it does. They were willing to be very accommodating of the fact that this was a childhood dream of mine come true. They knew that, they wanted to nurture it, and they wanted me to pursue it in the right way.”

In the midst of a national tour, Wan plans on speaking at an event for in-house counsel at Sidley Austin in Chicago on Nov. 6, then the NAPABA conference in Kansas City on Nov. 7. She’ll return to her capacity as associate GC on Nov. 11. But Wan said that just because she will be returning to work doesn’t mean that she will abandon writing. For this high-ranking in-house lawyer, there are still more stories to tell.

 

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