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Professional Development

I Wish I’d Known: Helen Wan

Helen Catherine Wan

I Wish I’d Known: Helen Wan
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I’m often asked how I mapped out my path from lawyering to being an author with a TV show. I appreciate this question, but it also makes me laugh. Believe me; no one’s been more surprised by this roller-coaster ride than I’ve been. My legal and writing careers evolved more by serendipity than by actual plotting or design.

Be Less Terrified of Uncertainty

Back in law school, I wish I’d known to be less terrified of uncertainty. It can be perfectly OK to stray from the marked trail. But like many fellow students, I was so busy following the bread crumbs, head down, that I didn’t stop often enough to question where exactly they were leading me.

To mix in another metaphor (writers like metaphors!), I wish I’d known that just because you can collect another gold star doesn’t mean you have to.

You can do anything, but not everything.

Always Bring Your Authentic Self

I also wish I’d known how important it is to bring your authentic self to work, class, or wherever every day. (I realize this may sound a little, you know, “woo woo,” but bear with me.)

I’m not talking about the version of yourself you think others want or might assume you to be. I’m talking about your truest self, the one that allows you to turn in your best work and feel the most comfortable in your own skin.

As a newly minted first-year associate, starting my job in a rarefied corporate culture that felt utterly alien to me, I assumed that Big Law wanted an automaton, a tailored-suit-wearing, World-Series-bantering, license-agreement-drafting robot associate who’d eat, breathe, and sleep the law 24–7.

So, I tried. I tried hard and for a very long time to “pass” and blend in. Sometimes this worked, but not always. (This, incidentally, was when I started writing a book.)

It took a while to realize this, but I wasn’t being true to myself. I don’t follow major league baseball. So, it would seem inauthentic whenever I’d hover around the water cooler with all the guys in my firm practice group, standing about a head shorter than all of them (even in heels!), trying to get a word in edgewise about the final inning of last night’s game.

And whenever I did get a word in, they’d pause just long enough to stare at me as if I’d just blurted, “And how about that touchdown, huh?” It sounded inauthentic even to me, and now I know it sounded inauthentic to them.

Soon after this, I stopped pretending to be a huge sports fan and started writing earnestly.

Finally, I realized that my initial assumption had been wrong. Law firms didn’t want a robot. What any legal employer—or any colleague or partner, in every sense of that word—wants is a smart, competent, authentic person who’s pleasant and fun to be around.


Recognize the Value of Personal Relationships

This leads me to this last point: Recognize the value of personal, real relationships.

In law school and every place I’ve ever worked, I wish I’d known much sooner to seek out kindred spirits. No matter how alone I might have felt and how challenging I thought things were, these folks are almost always there.

And I don’t just mean finding and cultivating relationships with good mentors and sponsors. It’s equally—if not even more—important to seek out and keep close a trusted, honest sounding board of your peers because sometimes they can most easily see the forest for the trees, even when you can’t.

I wish I’d known that not everyone else knew some secret handshake. And that there are quite a few people who are willing to help.

Even in the most stressful and challenging times and circumstances, most people are still fundamentally kind.