Summer is over and everyone is back in serious mode. But the buzz in Big Law isn’t about the next surprise witness at the Jan. 6 hearing, or how the Supreme Court will decide Harvard’s affirmative action case (as if that’s a mystery).
This is “Partner Tracking”. In my neck of the woods, the lawyers are talking about Netflix’s swanky new show based, rather loosely, on a novel by Helen Wan, a former associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The story follows Ingrid Yun (played by Arden Cho), a sixth-year M&A associate in New York, as she navigates the dangerous path to partnership.
Love it or hate it, there seems to be little middle ground, the series is sparking a debate about whether it captures what it’s like to be a woman of color in the legal profession.
“No matter what the critics say, it’s a must-watch TV show for every woman who’s ever worked at Big Law and certainly for Asian-American women,” said Katrina Lee, a professor at Moritz Law School in New York. The Ohio State University. .
“I won’t watch the show,” said Thy Bui, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Los Angeles. “It has all the tropes of diversity: the beautiful Asian lead, her two cronies of hers, a black gay friend and a white friend, and the white romantic leads. It sounds like a white person’s idea of diversity.”
Not in dispute: This is a Big Law Hollywood fantasy, which means plenty of visual appeal but little evidence of boring billable work. I don’t know many associates, even those on the partnership track, who can afford a nice apartment on Central Park West with two fireplaces. And which partner is always trotting off to fabulous galas in designer gowns? Most lawyers I know go to brain-numbing award ceremonies in gowns that are appropriately forgettable.
While going up to the partner suite, our heroine also manages to juggle two hunky suitors and have fabulous sex. (Question: Is hooking up in the firm’s conference room a lawyer’s fantasy?) Through it all, Ingrid also tolerates microaggressions. At one point, a client mistakes her for a legal assistant and asks her to bring a bottle of Pellegrino.
The show has drawn comparisons to “Emily in Paris” (ouch!), but it highlights one recurring criticism: Despite grappling with sexism and racism, “Partner Track” is simply too white-centric. To be more precise, some commentators ask: What is a cute Asian American girl doing with two romantic partners of Lily White?
“Even more troubling is that Ingrid (Arden Cho) is in an extremely white version of Manhattan,” writes Monique Jones at Common Sense Media. “To top it off, Ingrid seems to only date white men. . . Of course, you don’t have to date within your race to be considered depressed, but it’s weird when the main character apparently wants to live in a white-gaze fantasy and engage in racial politics only when it’s relevant to her. success.”
“You Can’t Please Everyone” Cube
At HuffPost, Ruth Etiesit Samuel calls the show “another story about a woman of color caught between two random, half-ugly white men.”
“I watched the entire Partner Track on Netflix and was confused for 10 episodes why Ingrid was torn between two boring white guys when Z [played by Chinese Australian Desmond Chiam] the morally good, red-hot environmental activist is standing right there,” jokes one commenter on Twitter.
While I generally agree that Ingrid’s two main suitors, a suffocatingly likable billionaire and an overly suave colleague with an English accent, aren’t all that bright, I’m not entirely convinced that Z, the brawny Korean-American environmentalist, is quite as bright. exciting neither. Maybe it’s just me, but I find serious do-gooders pretty tedious.
In any case, the criticism boils down to the idea that Ingrid is not Asian enough in her personal or professional life. But isn’t that in itself an unfair expectation of how an Asian-American woman should behave? Does the heroine have to wear her Asian identity on her sleeve and sport an Asian boyfriend to be considered authentic?
“This all falls into the can’t-please-everyone category,” said Wan, author of “The Partner Track,” a 2013 novel. “Someone complained that it was a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the legal profession, while another said, ‘I love ‘Sex and the City,’ but this is so overwhelmed by serious problems.’”
Still, I don’t disagree with the criticism that it could have been much stricter. I wish the show had kept its auger eye instead of falling into occasional kitsch and pseudo-despair. Did we really need the main characters to ask out loud if there is more to life than working at Big Law or giving some bromide about following one’s dreams?
While Wan’s book had nuance and cohesion, the series played it heavy handed. Although white male privilege was a subtext in the book, the show goes overboard, portraying male lawyers as a group of frat brothers on spring break.
But maybe it doesn’t make sense to judge the show in that light.
“Representation matters,” Lee said. “When I graduated from law school, I saw ‘Ally McBeal.’ I never expected to see an Asian American woman as the main character. I feel a bit sad because the old me couldn’t imagine that. It’s meaningful to have characters that look like you. I didn’t realize I would embrace the show as much as I have. I shouldn’t limit myself to fun shows with white people in my spare time!”
“The show resonates because it provides an accurate portrayal of outright racism and microaggression,” said Meera Deo, a professor at Southwestern Law School, noting how Ingrid fought to be recognized as simply a good lawyer. “It is so embarrassing that someone introduces you as an Asian lawyer instead of a lawyer. To me, it’s a clear representation of what Asian-American women encounter.”
Another fan is Eliana Torres, who recently joined Nixon Peabody as an IP associate: “Having her speak Korean with her family on the show was significant, I identified because I speak Spanish with my family.” Despite all the Hollywood flourishes, Torres finds Ingrid relatable: “She always has to prove herself. I think we’ve all had to overcompensate in our jobs.”
“I’m hearing from a lot of diverse lawyers, as well as white men, who said it would be a long time coming,” Wan said. “This story is told, on fucking Netflix! With an Asian director, an Asian lead, based on a book by an Asian author.”
“Partner Track” might not be in the league of “The Good Wife,” “Boston Legal,” or “LA Law,” my personal favorite. But does that matter?