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The Partner Track: A Novel

The Partner Track: A Novel

by Helen Wan

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Ingrid Yung's life is full of firsts. A first-generation Chinese American, the first lawyer in her family, she's about to collect the holy grail of "firsts" and become the first minority woman to make partner at the venerable old Wall Street law firm Parsons Valentine&Hunt.

Ingrid has perfected the art of "passing" and seamlessly blends into the old-boy corporate culture. She gamely banters in the corporate cafeteria, plays in the firm softball league, and earnestly racks up her billable hours. But when an offensive incident at the summer outing threatens the firm's reputation, Ingrid's outsider status is suddenly thrown into sharp relief. Scrambling to do damage control, Parsons Valentine announces a new Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, commanding Ingrid to spearhead the effort. Only she's about to close an enormous transaction that was to be her final step in securing partnership.
For the first time, Ingrid must question her place in the firm. Pitted against her colleagues, including her golden-boy boyfriend, Ingrid begins to wonder whether the prestige of partnership is worth breaching her ethics. But in The Partner Track by Helen Wan, can Ingrid risk throwing away the American dream that is finally within her reach?

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250019585
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 21,618
File size: 499 KB

About the Author

HELEN WAN is Associate General Counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner Inc. Before that, she practiced corporate law and media law at law firms in New York. Born in California and raised near Washington, D.C., Wan is a graduate of Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Her essays and reviews of fiction have been published in The Washington Post and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with her husband and son.

HELEN WAN is Associate General Counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner Inc. Before that, she practiced corporate law and media law at law firms in New York.  Born in California and raised near Washington, D.C., Wan is a graduate of Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Her essays and reviews of fiction have been published in The Washington Post and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with her husband and son. The Partner Track is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


The Parsons Valentine dining room — affectionately known as the Jury Box — resembled nothing so much as a high school cafeteria, writ large. We were all older, sure, with expensive haircuts and finely tailored suits. The food was a lot better, and it was served on fine china, classic white with a platinum border. And then there was the view. Instead of a track or a football field, our windows overlooked the grand expanse of Fifth Avenue and Central Park. No trophy cases or spirit banners, either, just a vast Ellsworth Kelly painting and a few signed Chuck Close prints adorning the otherwise stark white walls. But these were just trophies of a different sort.

At Parsons Valentine & Hunt LLP, every step you took was a carefully calibrated decision, right down to where you sat at lunch — especially the year you were up for partner. The powers-that-be took meticulous note of who was allied with whom. If you regularly sat at a table to gossip and gab with other associates, it telegraphed lazy and unambitious. If you sat only with partners, it screamed brownnoser. Sitting off by yourself, not surprisingly, was the worst kind of professional suicide — you might as well walk around wearing a big SOCIAL LIABILITY sign around your neck. And the worst thing you could be at Parsons Valentine was unpresentable.

At lunch in the Jury Box, we were spoiled for choice. I navigated my way around the freshly stocked salad bar, past the sushi chef, deli counter, brick-oven pizza and teppanyaki lines, and stopped at the hot entrée station. Mason, the firm's executive director of Dining Services — he'd apprenticed at Le Bernardin — was standing behind the sneeze guard, wearing his chef's hat and a crisp white apron. Mason was one of my favorite people at the firm. He'd once sent a steak sandwich to my office when I was stuck on a late-night conference call. I'd never forgotten it.

"Hey, Mason, what are you pushing today?" I asked.

"Well, well. Ingrid Yung. My favorite customer." He gestured with a flourish at the row of silver chafing dishes. "Today we've got some beautiful seared ahi tuna steaks with avocado tartare."

"Hm. Sounds healthy."

"And over here I've got my famous spicy three-cheese lasagna."


I walked my lasagna and a Perrier over to the cashier line. The guy in front of me, some fourth-year Litigation associate I'd never spoken to, was busily scratching a client matter number onto a checkout form with a stubby yellow golf pencil.

Parsons Valentine attorneys had the option of paying for our Jury Box meals in one of two ways: cash from our own pockets, or charging it to the client whose matter we were working on. We were supposed to do this only when working late and bringing dinner to our desks, but a lot of lawyers just charged their meals whenever they felt like it. This meant that Microsoft might be springing for your breakfast bagel, while Time Warner picked up your turkey club at lunch. I always just paid cash. It was faster, not to mention more honest.

I picked up my tray, entered the dining room, and surveyed my options.

Jeff Murphy half-stood from his table, waving me over to where he sat with Hunter Russell, another associate in our class. Good old Murph. He was one of my best friends at the firm. We'd shared an office as summer associates, exactly nine years ago this month. Frankly, I hadn't expected to like him much at first. I'd taken one look and assumed he'd be too entitled for my taste, the worst kind of irritating, backslapping, how-the-hell-are-you frat boy. But he'd grown on me. Murph was a smart guy, despite the rich jock pedigree.

I set my tray down next to his on the starched white tablecloth and pulled out a chair. I nodded at Hunter, who barely glanced my way, thumbs frantically working the keys of his BlackBerry. Hunter loved his BlackBerry. It gave him the appearance of responding to urgent client messages while he checked his Fantasy League Baseball stats.

"What's up, Yung?" said Murph, jostling my elbow. He grinned at me, and I looked sidelong back at him.

Murph was a good-looking guy, and he knew it. I was reminded of this once again, seeing him in his crisp white dress shirt, open at the throat, sleeves rolled up, his tanned, muscular forearms lying easily on the table. His wavy, dark blond hair just brushed the top of his collar, and his new tan set off his eyes to brilliant effect, making them look even greener than usual. Murph's family had a house on the Cape, and he spent a week there every Memorial Day. He'd just gotten back, and he practically glowed with privilege and well-being.

Murph and I had once had something of a moment, you might say, years ago. When you hire ninety-five young, smart, attractive, ambitious people every fall, who've all just graduated from the same five law schools and landed in Manhattan, and then make them work twenty hours a day together in close quarters, there's obviously going to be sexual tension. Back when we were first-years, Murph had thrown a huge Halloween party at the loft he shared in Tribeca with one of his college buddies. I hadn't really wanted to go, and I didn't have a costume, but all the other associates in our class were going, and there was nothing I hated more than feeling left out.

So at the last minute, I rushed from work to my apartment and threw on my high school prom dress — the one I'd worn the night I'd been crowned Potomac Valley High's first-ever Asian American prom queen. (Oh my! Mrs. Saltzstein, the guidance counselor, had gushed. She'd heard of Oriental valedictorians before, but never a Chinese prom queen!) The dress was a strapless pink taffeta number. The zipper took some coaxing, and I was mushrooming a little out the top, but damn if I didn't still look pretty good in that thing.

By the time I cabbed downtown to Murph's loft, the party was in full swing.

"Yung!" said a very drunk Murph upon greeting me at the door. He was dressed as Pope John Paul II. We air-kissed — funny how being at a party makes it okay to air-kiss your co-workers — and he led me to the drinks in the kitchen. Many hours and margaritas later, Murph, Hunter, Hunter's wife, and I were huddled around his CD collection (this being before the iPod age) and someone put on "Son of a Preacher Man." Murph looked at me, bleary-eyed, and said, "Yung. What are you wearing?" I batted my lashes and purred, "My prom dress." Hunter's wife threw back her head and laughed. "What about some fake hickeys? You can't be a prom queen without the hickeys!"

Without missing a beat, Murph volunteered to provide the real thing, and before I could think better of it, Murph bent over my bare neck and shoulder and did the honors while I leaned back against his Sharper Image CD tower. I remember being surprised at the warmth of him, and how good the burr of his late-night stubble felt against my skin. It tickled, and I was laughing, and Dusty Springfield was singing that being good isn't always easy, but when Murph stood back up and gazed at me with a deadly serious, intensely hopeful look on his face, I realized I'd made a grave mistake. Sure enough, later that night, as Murph helped me look for my coat among the huge pile on his bed, he fixed me with a solemn if drunken gaze and leaned in toward me at a deliberate angle. I gently disentangled myself and pretended to laugh it off. "If only you weren't dressed as the pope," I'd said, the easiest way I could think of to let him down lightly. This was Murph, after all; he was like my brother. Furthermore, everyone at work knew he was an incorrigible flirt. Monday morning we both acted like it had just been the tequila talking. That had been eight years ago. We'd never spoken of it since.

"Health food?" Murph asked now, nodding toward my plate.

"Shut up, it's delicious," I told him, and took a huge bite of lasagna.

I did not appreciate Murph or anyone else scrutinizing what I was eating. It always felt, just a tiny bit, like I was back in my fourth-grade cafeteria, shyly unwrapping the scallion pancake or shrimp toast my mother would pack in aluminum foil in my lunchbox. "What's that?" Becky Noble would wrinkle up her nose, her own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwich raised halfway to her mouth, causing all of the other girls to giggle. Years later, on a blind date at the Campbell Apartment, my twenty-dollar martini had arrived alongside an appetizer of those same scallion pancakes, cut into dainty bite-size triangles and served with a ginger-soy dipping sauce. My blind date — an anesthesiologist named Ethan — pushed them toward me. "Try one. These things are amazing," he enthused, popping one into his mouth. "They are good, aren't they," I replied, smiling vaguely and wondering what had ever happened to Becky Noble.

Murph shook his head at me. "I swear I've never seen a woman eat so much and still be a size two, Yung."

I shrugged.

Here was another thing about all the male attorneys I worked with. They all called me by my last name, Yung, instead of by my first name, Ingrid. I wondered if some of them even knew what my first name was. But I didn't mind this. I'd been in the corporate world long enough to know that it was a good sign. When they felt comfortable enough to swear like sailors around me, I knew I was finally in.

I looked over at Hunter. He was hunched over a piece of paper, scribbling on some sort of cryptic sketch that looked like a tree.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Huh?" Hunter looked up. "Oh. I'm doing our softball brackets. See?" He slid the paper toward me. "This is how the season's shaping up. Wachtell's out. All we have to do now is beat Simpson Thacher in two weeks. And trust me, we will. They suck this year. So if Davis Polk takes down Skadden next week, and then they knock out the DA's office after that, we'll face them in the finals." He beamed.

Murph looked at me. "Glad you asked?"

Hunter was captain of our firm's softball team, the Parsons Valentine Prosecutors, and he was obsessed with winning the Central Park Lawyers League championship trophy. He spent twice as much time on softball captain duties as he did on legal work, but Hunter could afford to. He was pretty much unfireable. Nine years ago, during his final year of law school, he'd had the good fortune to knock up the daughter of a longtime Parsons Valentine client. This bank CFO had promptly forwarded Hunter's résumé to the head partner in our Corporate Department with a lunch invitation and a handwritten note, gently suggesting that his new son-in-law was sure to be an asset to any firm. Hunter was hired the following week. He'd been here ever since, billing about two-thirds of the hours the rest of us did. We grudgingly accepted him in our midst. We knew they'd never actually make him a partner — the firm was too worried about malpractice for that — but he was assured a cushy job as a senior associate or Of Counsel for as long as his father-in-law's bank kept paying its bills.

"A word to the wise," Murph said in a lowered voice. "I hear Adler's looking to staff some monster deal. If you see him around, look busy."

We usually got assigned to deals at the Corporate Department meetings, so the process could appear fair and transparent, but sometimes partners just randomly trolled the halls looking for help. If you had too clean a desk or were blatantly surfing the Web when a partner poked his head in your office, you'd be slapped with a new deal. This was known, resentfully, as drive-by assigning.

"That's not Adler's MO," I said. Marty Adler was the top rainmaking partner at Parsons Valentine, the real deal. He didn't need to troll the halls. Associates wanted to work with him. If he liked you, he could make your whole career.

Murph shrugged. "Look, believe what you want. I'm just the messenger."

"Speak of the devil." I nodded toward the other side of the room. Marty Adler, Harold Rubinstein, Sid Cantrell, and Jack Hanover — heavy hitters, all of them members of the firm's Management Committee — were rising from a table and pocketing their BlackBerrys. (Partners left their trays on the table for the dining room staff to clean up. Associates bused our own.) We all watched as this gang of four exited the Jury Box through the glass doors and stood talking in front of the elevators. Adler was gesticulating wildly about something. The others were nodding in agreement, apparently unaware that all of the associates were looking on.

I took another bite of lasagna. This brand of naked, unabashed partner worship amused me. We were senior associates, on the verge of our own partnership votes, and yet we still accorded the partners a distant, irreverent kind of celebrity — sort of like the way kids talked about their teachers in junior high. Partners walked among us. We worked alongside them. We talked to them every day. But despite this charade of equal footing, they remained shrouded in mystery. They were beings to be scrutinized and revered, hated and loved — and gossiped about. We were all expected to call them by their first names to their faces, but in private, we bandied about their last names only, as if they were baseball trading cards.

We watched as the four partners disappeared into an elevator.

"Well, back to the grind," said Murph, balling up his napkin and tossing it onto his tray. "I've got a ton of shit to do today."

Hunter pushed his chair back from the table and stood. "Yeah, I guess I should get going, too."

Murph glanced at me. "Hey, you don't mind, do you? You want us to sit with you til you're done?" Actually, I did mind. Eating alone in the Jury Box made me feel like my cover had been blown. But I couldn't tell them that. "Go, go, I don't mind," I said, shooing them away. "See you guys later."

I took two more bites of Mason's spicy three-cheese lasagna and stood to bus my tray.

* * *

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's, Murph's, 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 IT. 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.

"Any messages?"

"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.


Excerpted from "The Partner Track"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Helen Wan.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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