On Aug. 15, Christine Son sat in front of an audience at a north Dallas Barnes & Noble bookstore reading from her first novel, "Off the Menu," an account of the horrors of life at a big Texas firm, which was published in paperback by Penguin Group.
The book's plot revolves around three characters, all of whom are former high school valedictorians. The three women excel in their professions, but they struggle with meeting their parents' expectations and choosing their own paths in life. The main character is Whitney Lee, an associate at a high-powered Houston law firm who intensely dislikes her job and wants to sing.
Like Lee, Son is Asian-American and formerly worked at a Texas firm as a corporate lawyer, graduated from an elite law school (Duke University School of Law) and harbors artistic ambitions. After five years as an associate with the Dallas office of Fulbright & Jaworski, Son quit in 2006 to become a senior attorney at Plano, Texas-based J.C. Penney Corp. and to have more free time to write her novel.
Another similarity? In the book, Lee tells a more junior associate that recent increases in associate pay have changed life at the firm.
"[T]he last two salary bumps made everyone's expectations impossible to meet. There's so much resentment from both the associates, who feel like they are working to death, and the partners, who hate the fact that associates are making so much money at such a young age. Everyone resents each other, and no one trusts anyone anymore," the fictional Lee tells the associate.
In an interview, Son agrees with her main character. She says that, because her tenure at Fulbright coincided with large associate salary increases, relationships between partners and associates changed for the worse. But she has no regrets about working at a big firm, where she learned a lot. If she turned the clock back, she likely would have followed the same path, she says.
Although there are some similarities between Son and Lee, Son stressed to the group of about 50 at Barnes & Noble that her 350-page book "is not autobiographical." In an interview before the reading, she noted, "This is not a roman à clef."
• In the novel, Lee wants to sing and does so secretly at clubs the whole time she works as an associate in the Houston office of fictional firm Boerne & Connelly (B&C). In real life, Son wanted to write the whole time she worked at Fulbright, but she didn't start in earnest on her novel until she left for J.C. Penney.
• In the novel, Lee went to Harvard Law School. In real life, Son went to Duke after earning a pre-med degree from the University of Texas and ditching a plan to go to medical school, even though she had been accepted.
• In the novel, a fictional Will Strong is B&C's boorish, racially insensitive managing partner. He stomps around barking to Lee: "You f---ed it up, and we're all f---ed." Strong also worries about an "F" rating his firm received in a Texas Lawyer article about diversity and wants Lee to attend a Houston Minority Business Association dinner to show the flag. In real life, Son says, there was no one like Strong at Fulbright. Strong's character "is an amalgamation of 50 different people I know," she says.
Son adds, "I didn't really get asked to serve as any kind of representative for diversity by Fulbright. I would get invited to minority dinners. I was asked to interview at minority recruiting events. But to serve in the same way as Whitney [Lee] was forced to? No, not at all."
Son says the reaction to her book among her former Fulbright colleagues and friends has been "surprisingly positive." Caroline Free Bagot, a spokeswoman for Fulbright, says Ken Stewart, the partner in charge of the Dallas office, declines comment.
For associates, "Off the Menu" features one of their own as the heroine and offers an interesting fictional look at the daily trials and tribulations at a firm as well as captures their highly paid, high-pressure existence.