The Partner Track: Excerpt

The scene by the pool was in full swing by the time I got down there.  No one was swimming, but a line had already formed at the bar.  Coolers packed with ice, Perrier, Gatorade, and bottled beer were positioned at convenient intervals across the spotless pool deck.  I did what I always did - got a club soda with a wedge of lime and then stretched out on a green-and-white striped lounge chair, crossing my ankles demurely, pasting a fake smile on my face and trying to look as though I was having a fantastic time.

The sun reflected off the glittering surface of the pool like tiny gemstones.  It felt good on my face and shoulders. I leaned back and closed my eyes, relaxing a little.

Before long, I heard two loud splashes, and some high-pitched giggles.  I opened my eyes.  It was the same group of chatty summer associates I'd seen on the bus.  Two of the guys had canonballed into the deep end of the pool.  A third was making a beeline for the open bar - Steinberg, I presumed.  The rest of the group were picking out deck chairs and moving them out of the shade, arranging them in a sprawling semicircle a few yards from me.

I put my sunglasses on so I could watch more carefully.  I was curious, and more than a little nostalgic.  There had been ninety-five of us in my class when we'd first started out, and over a third of us were women.  Now, eight years later, it was just me, Murph, Hunter, Tyler, and a handful of other guys left standing.

I was still friends with a lot of the women lawyers who'd left Parsons Valentine over the years.  I knew they all rooted for me.  Every Christmas, I received an enthusiastic chorus of messages:  KEEP FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT!  LOOKING FORWARD TO TOASTING THE FIRM'S FIRST FEMALE CORPORATE PARTNER!!!!  GO INGRID!!

These messages typically came scrawled on the back of a holiday photo card featuring some impossibly cute two-year-old in a reindeer costume, or one of my former colleagues and her husband, both wearing elf hats and hugging an affable-looking Labrador Retriever between them.

As I watched this latest crop of summer associates, shrieking and splashing each other in the pool, I thought about how much I missed that easy camaraderie - the freedom you felt when you were nowhere near up for partner, that blissful safety in numbers.  It was so much harder to blend in when there was only one of you.

The one called Steinberg was back with a large girly drink served in a hollowed-out pineapple.  "Hey," he yelled to one of the girls. "Why aren't you in the pool yet?"

This particular girl--the prettiest girl in the group--was a tall, willowy blonde with high cheekbones, fair skin, and a faint spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose.  Her hair was swept back into an unfussy chignon and secured with a tiny tortoiseshell pin.  She was wearing a chic black cover-up; the white spaghetti straps of a swimsuit top were visibly knotted together behind her neck.

I knew her name - Cameron Alexander - because Murph and Hunter had pointed her out in the Summer Associate Directory, also known among the male attorneys at the firm as The Menu.  Cameron had been to Exeter and was a double-Harvard - both college and law school - and, according to her firm bio, did some modeling in her spare time.  Runway, not catalog.  Rumor had it she was also dating a client - the manager of an exclusive hedge fund the firm represented.

"Come on, Cameron," said the one called Steinberg.  "You said you'd be going in."

"I don't see anyone stopping you from swimming, Jason," Cameron said with a toss of her head.  "Why does it always have to be follow-the-leader with you?"

This seemed to shut Steinberg up for a moment.  The other men in the group sniggered.

Good for you, Cameron, I thought.

"Hey Ingrid, mind if I join you?"

I looked up.  It was Tim Hollister, a youngish corporate partner in our Emerging Markets group.  A glint was coming off of his Clark Kent glasses where the sunlight hit them just so. 

"Of course not," I said, sitting up, pushing my sunglasses up onto the crown of my head.  "Pull up a chair."

I liked Tim.  He'd been in the associate class three years above me and Murph, and seemed a little surprised to have woken up one day to discover himself occupying a huge corner office. Even after he'd made partner, Tim still managed to seem like one of us.  He was the type of young partner who rarely asked associates to work on weekends if he wasn't also coming in himself. And once, I'd stood behind him in line in the Jury Box and heard him greet the cashier by name.

Tim swung the nearest deck chair around, parked it next to mine, and sat down, stretching out his long legs.  He opened the bottled water he was holding and took a swallow.

"No tropical slushy for you today, Tim?" I asked, inclining my head toward Jason Steinberg and his hollowed-out pineapple.

He looked over and grinned.  "Wow. It's only ten-fifty.  I try to wait til at least noon."  Then he looked at me and said, "This is always such a long day, you know?"

I nodded.  And felt grateful to him for having said it.

We sat in comfortable silence for a moment.  I slid my huge Audrey Hepburn-style sunglasses back on my face and studied Tim Hollister in profile.  Rumor had it that he actually had a Ph.D. in Political Theory in addition to his law degree, which made him rather noteworthy to the women at the firm.  Tim had salt-and-pepper hair and kind gray eyes.  He was the type of guy whose appeal, I guessed, was obvious to most but not all.  Intelligent women might disagree as to whether or not he was handsome.

As I was busy thinking all this, he opened his mouth and said to me, "So, Ingrid, the buzz is that you've impressed the hell out of the SunCorp CEO."

I nearly fell out of my chair.  Tim Hollister and I didn't know each other very well.  We barely talked.  The fact that this had made its way to him was news.

I tried not to sound giddy.  "I'm surprised you heard about that, Tim.  But thanks," I said, and meant it.

"Are you kidding?"  Tim looked genuinely happy for me.  "There are no secrets around this place, believe me.  Marty Adler's been crowing about you all week.  Just wanted to say I think it's really well deserved.  And the timing couldn't be better for you, obviously."

I felt my face flush with pleasure.  I was trying to think of something both witty and sincere to say back, but Tim had already turned away and was looking toward the entrance to the pool.  Gavin Dunlop, another young Corporate partner, was gesturing impatiently at Tim, pointing at his watch and making exaggerated swinging motions with his arms.

Tim stood.  "Gotta run.  Eleven o'clock tee time.  I'll see you around."

"See you.  And thanks.  I really appreciate what you said."

"Anytime."  He raised both arms and made a graceful free throw with his empty water bottle.  I watched it arc smoothly into a nearby bin.  Then Tim jogged over toward Gavin Dunlop, and the two of them headed up the grassy slope toward the clubhouse. 

I took in a long, deep breath and stretched out my arms and legs as far as they would reach, feeling the pleasant pull in each muscle, the sheer joy of being young and appreciated and good at what you did.  I draped one arm lazily above my head and closed my eyes, luxuriating in the warmth of the sun and Tim's words.  I think it's really well deserved. 

My eyes were still closed when suddenly I thought, It's really quiet.  It's too quiet.  A reverent hush had fallen over the pool deck.  When I opened my eyes, I saw why. 

Cameron Alexander had peeled off her cover-up and was sauntering toward the shallow end of the pool, wearing only a white string bikini.  She moved with an unhurried grace, as if she were aware of so many eyes on her and really didn't mind.  Steinberg was obediently loping along behind her, still clasping the ridiculous pineapple beverage.  He looked like a kid on Christmas morning.

For women lawyers at a firm outing, the swimsuit question presented a conundrum.  Just what should a young career woman wear to what was essentially a pool party thrown by her employer?  On the one hand - let's be honest - law firms valued good looks and sex appeal as much as anyone.  So if you were an attractive young woman, you didn't exactly want to be the class prude, huddled poolside in a parka.  On the other hand, showing too much skin wasn't a good idea, either.  Not if you ever expected to be taken seriously again.  I watched the male attorneys on line at the bar surreptitiously smirk and nudge each other.  People pretended to return to their momentarily abandoned conversations but continued to stare in her direction.

Unflustered, Cameron stood alone at the water's edge.  She raised one perfect, Pilates-toned leg and dipped a pointed toe into the water. 

"Still pretty cold," she announced, loud enough for all of us to hear.  "I think I'll wait a bit."

Steinberg didn't seem disappointed to hear this.  His objective had been achieved.

"Fine with me," he said, shaking his pineapple drink at her.  "I'm out.  Let's go get something else to drink."

Cameron shrugged and walked with Steinberg to the back of the drinks line, where they were joined by--I should say she was joined by--two male partners who were suddenly extremely interested in striking up a conversation with the summer associates.  Before long, Cameron and Steinberg's group of friends had joined them, too, forming a large gaggle in front of the bar. 

All the summers were trying to schmooze the partners, but none succeeded like Cameron Alexander.  She looked almost queenly, wearing a beneficent smile and occasionally throwing her head back with laughter, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be standing around barefoot with the Corporate Tax partners, chatting animatedly about the latest summer action flick, while wearing a white string bikini and gesturing with your mojito for emphasis.

I was, if I'm being honest, jealous.  Of course I was - but not of the way Cameron looked in her white string bikini.  Instead, I was jealous of her confidence and her utter unself-consciousness.  What would it be like, I marveled, to go through life so utterly unwary?  So wholly certain of your belonging to a place that it was never necessary to consider how your next move would be perceived? 

Making partner at Parsons Valentine felt like a big final exam to which a select few held the answer key.  While the rest of us schmucks had to study.

But you're getting there, too, Ingrid! I quickly reminded myself.  Hadn't Tim Hollister just personally congratulated me on the great work I'd been doing?  Hadn't Marty Adler called me "Slugger?" Today was not the day for a pity party.  I decided to treat myself to a celebratory margarita or two.  I stood up and walked over to join the drinks line.

Excerpted from THE PARTNER TRACK (St. Martin's Press) by Helen Wan.  (c) 2013 by Helen Wan.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.