Helen Wan ’98 Tells Grads to ‘Dream Big’ and Embrace Serendipity
You may have been handed the keys to a degree that can make a difference in the world, but now it’s up to you to make your own luck.
That was the central message delivered by Helen Wan, a 1998 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and author of “The Partner Track,” a book that became a Netflix series in 2022, in her commencement speech to the Law School’s Class of 2023 on Sunday.
Wan said the opportunity to speak to her alma mater’s graduating students 25 years to the day after her own graduation felt “a bit surreal.”
“Honestly, it feels a little bit like one of those magical Cinderella-at-the-ball moments that sometimes do happen in life,” she said.
But Wan urged the graduates to rely on neither serendipity nor magical thinking while creating their future selves, and to recognize that some “bumps in the road” are better characterized as “opportunities.”
Wan credited her parents for making their own luck — and hers — by leaving everything behind to flee from Communist China to Taiwan and then the United States. Her dad’s first job was washing dishes in a fancy hotel, but he eventually became a language instructor, and her mother became a teacher, by putting themselves “in a smart place at a smart time.”
Wan also spoke of gratitude for the lives and careers her family members were able to build in the U.S. which, despite its flaws, is still a place that brings tears of pride to her father’s eyes.
“In the Mandarin Chinese language, the United States of America is called ‘Mei Guo,’ and translated literally, that means ‘The Beautiful Country,’” Wan said. “My parents are just about the most authentic and appreciative Americans I think I know.”
Wan’s novel, “The Partner Track,” is a staple in many law school ethics classes, and explores how factors like history, family, geography, race, gender, socioeconomic class, religion, privilege and access to education shape the law firm experience and ambitions of young lawyers.
Wan spent a year and a half at a major New York City law firm before leaving for a smaller firm to focus on media and entertainment law. She eventually worked as in-house counsel for three media companies and served as vice president and associate general counsel for the Hatchett Book Group. In addition to practicing law and writing about it, Wan is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and speaker.
She encouraged the graduates to “dream big and be audacious,” but also to remember that it’s acceptable to “step off ‘The Track’ — with a capital T” occasionally.
“Just because you can collect yet another gold star on the list, it doesn’t mean you always have to,” Wan said. “It’s so easy to get so used to — and so good at — following all these breadcrumbs. So once in a while, just please remember to stop and make sure they are leading you somewhere you really want to go.”
Juhi Desai, president of the Student Bar Association, introduced Wan. UVA Law Dean Risa Goluboff provided welcoming and concluding remarks for the ceremony.
Goluboff saluted the class for its many achievements and benchmarks, including contributing more than 12,040 hours of pro bono service. A total of 82 students met the school’s 75-hour pro bono challenge. Those students supported lawyers combating hate speech in South Africa, Ukrainians pursuing reparations from Russia, victims of domestic violence, local first responders and residents recently released from prison, and LGBTQ+ youth.
Goluboff also announced student awards, which were followed by the hooding ceremony and ceremonial scroll presentation. In total, there were 285 J.D. and 40 LL.M. candidates.
Awards Presented at Graduation
Margaret G. Hyde Award
To the graduate whose scholarship, character, personality, activities in the affairs of the school, and promise of efficiency have warranted special recognition.
Dev Priya Ranjan
James C. Slaughter Honor Award
To an outstanding member of the graduating class.
Elana M. Oser
Thomas Marshall Miller Prize
To an outstanding and deserving member or members of the graduating class.
Laura E. Lowry
Z Society Shannon Award
To the graduate with the highest academic record after five semesters.
Jeffrey Robert Horn
Robert E. Goldsten Award for Distinction in the Classroom
To the graduate who has contributed the most to classroom education by his or her outstanding recitation and discussion.
Amalia Isabel Garcia-Pretelt
LL.M. Graduation Award
To an outstanding member or members of the graduating LL.M. class.
Amanda Lauren Staples
Roger and Madeleine Traynor Prize
To the graduate or graduates who have produced outstanding written work.
Jeffrey Robert Horn
Dev Priya Ranjan
Herbert Kramer/Herbert Bangel Community Service Award
To the graduate who has contributed the most to the community.
Isaac Kevin Buckley
Pro Bono Award
To the graduate who contributed the most to the Law School’s Pro Bono Program.
Kara Sue Hafermalz
Mortimer Caplin Public Service Award
To a graduate entering a career in the public service sector who demonstrates the qualities of leadership, integrity and service to others.
Mary Sloan Denning Merkel
Edwin S. Cohen Tax Prize
To a graduate who has demonstrated superior scholarship in the tax area.
Neil Michael Kelliher
Earle K. Shawe Labor Relations Award
To the graduate who shows the greatest promise in the field of labor relations.
Anna Marie Bninski
John M. Olin Prize in Law and Economics
To a graduate or graduates who have produced outstanding written work in the field of law and economics.
Neil Michael Kelliher
Eppa Hunton IV Memorial Book Award
To a graduate who demonstrates unusual aptitude in courses in the field of litigation, and who shows a keen awareness and understanding of the lawyer’s ethical and professional responsibility.
Skylar Rae Drefcinski
Virginia Trial Lawyers Trial Advocacy Award
To a graduate who shows particular promise in the field of trial advocacy.
Leah Judith DeFazio
Virginia State Bar Family Law Book Award
To the graduate who has demonstrated the most promise and potential for the practice of family law.
Christina Irene Antonucci
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.
Media ContactMelissa Castro Wyatt