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On the ‘Track’ to a creative life in law

On the ‘Track’ to a creative life in law

In December of 2011, while I was working as associate general counsel at a large company in New York, my agent finally sold my first novel (on which I’d labored for thirteen years, on weekends and late at night, garnering an impressive collection of rejections). That phone call was the happiest of my life. Writing was my childhood dream. Dizzy with joy and disbelief, I threw on my coat and left the office. It was snowing, and I threaded my way through the holiday throngs and paused to gaze up at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, tears welling in my eyes. A stranger walked up to me. “Lady, I don’t know what just happened to you, but congratulations.”

Two years later, my novel was published. I gave a small reading at our local Brooklyn bookstore. Friends took me out for beers after. I was thrilled. I thought, one day, I’ll have a great story to tell our baby son: You know, your lawyer mom once wrote a novel. You can do anything you set your mind to.

What could be more practical than doing something that makes you happy and fulfilled?

Then an unexpected thing happened. My novel, “The Partner Track,” about a young woman of color competing for partnership at a powerful law firm, started getting handed around from reader to reader. Law firms, law schools, and then colleges, corporations, bar associations, and leadership groups started inviting me to come speak. People wanted to know what my next book was about. The Washington Post followed me around to a bunch of my talks and decided to run a Sunday magazine story with me on the cover. I was still working my normal lawyer day job, along with learning to be a new mom to a one-year-old. The speaking invitations snowballed. I panicked.

After lots of sleepless nights, I went to my boss, explaining that never in my wildest dreams had I expected any of this, but I wanted to take a hiatus from lawyering to see where this writing thing might lead me. I didn’t even need to finish my speech. The reply was: Do it. You’ve got to do it.
It had not been my plan to leave lawyering to write novels. I am risk averse by nature. That’s how I wound up a lawyer in the first place. I grew up in a loving but conservative, Tiger-parented household. It was instilled in us at an early age that one must choose a “practical” career. Upon college graduation, I didn’t think pursuing my love of creative writing was a realistic path. My decision to go to law school went like this: What do I love? Working with words. Taking a look at the troika of Immigrant Parent Approved Careers — law, medicine, or finance — I thought, well, lawyers work with words. So I took the LSAT.

Only nineteen years later, I became a full-time author.NewPPBCover2

It still doesn’t roll off my tongue to say, “I’m an author.” It’s too easy to feel like a fraud. Once, I was a last-minute addition to a reading at a New York performance space. I sat onstage in the darkened room, wearing the requisite black, fists sweaty. When the emcee introduced my turn at the mike, he mentioned my corporate law background, and all the other novelists and poets onstage turned to stare at me. I imagined them judging the impostor, picturing me dumping contributions into my 401K while they boiled instant ramen. I had not suffered for my art.

These days, I’m often asked for career advice by students. A frequent question I get is, “So should I do what I love, or something practical?” The question itself makes me a little sad, because it assumes the two are at odds. Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Look at it this way: What could be more practical than doing something that makes you happy and fulfilled? Honestly, back when I was in school, I wish I’d spent a hell of a lot less time worrying about what other people thought, and more time figuring out what I was both good at and enjoyed doing.

All those years I spent dutifully following the well-trod path, I wish I’d stopped to consider: just where are all these bread crumbs leading me? Is it really where I want to go?

In my case, my corporate legal career ultimately led me to — at least supplied the raw material for — my creative one. But it was by serendipity, not design. Knowing what I now know, I would have been a far more active architect of my own career path. I would have taken many more risks, and sooner.

It’s an incredible privilege to do what one loves for a living, and I’m grateful for it every day.

Author’s Note: November is National Novel Writing Month. If you’re someone who’s always felt you’ve got a book in you, I have one message for you: Do it. You’ve got to do it.

Helen Wan Helen Wan is a lawyer, author, and speaker best known for The Partner Track, in which a woman of color competes for partnership at an elite law firm. Her book is taught in law schools and universities and used by businesses in diversity, equity, and inclusion training. It’s also now a Netflix series.