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Attorney to Author: Second Act

By Susan J. Wells

  • PUBLISHED April 19
  • |

It’s a common enough dream: Leaving your day job behind to write a hit novel. But for Helen Wan, that wish has become a reality. After years of practicing corporate and media law, she’s now a successful author whose first novel has been optioned for TV and film.

The Story Begins
As a young girl growing up in Northern Virginia, Wan always thought she might like to be a writer. “But I dreamed about ‘being a writer’ like one might think about playing in the NFL or being a rock star,” she says. “It didn’t seem doable; it didn’t seem practical.” 

The child of first-generation Asian immigrants, she admits feeling pressure to choose a more pragmatic career. So during her senior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts, when she took the LSAT and did well, on to law school it was.

After earning her degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, Wan landed in the mergers and acquisitions department of a major Manhattan firm. “I might as well have landed on the moon,” she recalls. “It was such a rarefied, privileged environment, completely alien to me.”

While there, she began to notice certain predictable patterns: who was sinking or swimming, who was taken under the wing of important mentors within the firm, and who wasn’t, and why. So while she continued to advance during her 16-year legal career—eventually becoming associate general counsel at Time Inc.—she also started jotting down observations in a notebook. 

Pretty soon, those notes evolved into an idea for a novel, she says.

The Plot Thickens
In small moments of time, on weekends and during vacations, Wan shifted gears from writing legal drafts and transactional contracts to writing the fictional, yet familiar, story of Ingrid Yung, a young Asian-American lawyer and daughter of Chinese immigrants. Through a tumultuous maze of gender, race and class politics, the tale follows Yung’s quest to navigate a venerable law firm where she hopes to become the first minority woman to make partner.

Twelve years, three rewrites and two book agents later, Wan’s debut novel was published in 2013 (The Partner Track, St. Martin’s Press). It was so well received that she decided to leave her law job in the spring of 2014 to pursue the dream of becoming a novelist. 

Taking the Leap
It wasn’t a decision she made lightly; in fact, she says it came only after many sleepless nights. “[But] during the many years I was doing something other than my dream of writing, my job was secure and lucrative,” she says. 
That stability enabled her to build up a sizable nest egg for the future. “I was fairly disciplined as a saver,” she explains, making regular contributions to both tax-advantaged and traditional savings accounts. “I’m also a risk-averse person by nature, so I paid off my student debt as soon as I could, tried to stay away from outlandish expenses, and never took my lawyer salary (or having that job at all) for granted.”

Indeed, she still maintains her bar accreditation and continuing legal education credits—just to keep that option open should the need arise.

The Next Chapter
Meanwhile, Wan just finished a rewrite of her second novel. It’s not a sequel to the first, she says, but a deeper dive into how race, gender, class, privilege and other factors complicate our relationship with ambition and definitions of success.

She also lectures and consults frequently on diversity and inclusion, and how to make work and school environments feel more inclusive for traditionally underrepresented minorities and women, so that talented people will stay and thrive. Her first novel is being used as a teaching tool at universities and law firms. And she recently enjoyed teaching a "Fiction as Activism" writing class.

As personally satisfying as her second act is, Wan acknowledges its challenges. “There were lots of false starts,” she says, “and long stretches of time when I’d allow myself to get discouraged, thinking that publication would never happen.”

Yet as she looks forward to seeing her next book in print, she’s definitely happy with the choices she has made. “No matter what happens, if I had never given myself a real shot at book two, I would’ve lived to regret it,” she says. 

“I’m proof that perseverance can pay off.”


Susan J. Wells is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly for Kiplinger’s custom content team. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, American City Business Journals, HR Magazine and many other digital, print and brand media.

Inset Photograph by Anna Campanelli.

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