Summer is finito and everyone’s 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 the Harvard affirmative action case (as if that’s a mystery).
It’s about “Partner Track.” In my neck of the woods, lawyers are talking about the splashy new Netflix show based—rather loosely—on a novel by Helen Wan, a former associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The story follows Ingrid Yun (portrayed by Arden Cho), a sixth-year mergers and acquisitions associate in New York, as she navigates the perilous road to partnership.
Love it or loathe it—there seems to be little middle ground—the series is sparking 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 must-watch TV, arguably for all women who’ve ever worked in Big Law, and most certainly for Asian American women,” said Katrina Lee, a professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
“I won’t watch the show,” said Thy Bui, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Los Angeles. “It’s got every diversity trope: the beautiful Asian female lead, her two sidekicks—a Black gay friend and a White woman friend, and the White romantic leads. It seems like a White person’s idea of diversity.”
Not in dispute: This is a Hollywood fantasy of Big Law—meaning lots of eye candy but scant evidence of boring billable work. I don’t know many associates, even those on the partnership track, who can afford a gorgeous apartment on Central Park West with two fireplaces. And what associate is always trotting off to fabulous galas in designer gowns? Most lawyers I know go to brain-numbing awards ceremonies wearing frocks that are appropriately forgettable.
While making her climb to the partnership suite, our heroine also manages to juggle two hunky suitors and have fabulous sex. (Query: Is hooking up in the firm’s conference room a lawyer fantasy?) Through all this, Ingrid also puts up with microaggressions. At one point, a client mistakes her for a paralegal and asks her to fetch a bottle of Pellegrino.
The show has been compared to “Emily in Paris” (ouch!) but one recurring criticism stands out: Despite grappling with sexism and racism, “Partner Track” is simply too White-centric. To be more precise, some commentators are asking: What’s a nice Asian American girl doing with two lily White romantic partners?
“Even more troubling is that Ingrid (Arden Cho) is in an extremely White version of Manhattan,” writes Monique Jones in Common Sense Media. “To top it off, Ingrid appears to date only White men . . . Of course, you don’t need to date within your race to be considered down with your race, but it’s strange when the main character seemingly wants to live in a fantasy of the White gaze and engage in racial politics only when it’s relevant to her success.”
At HuffPost, Ruth Etiesit Samuel calls the show “another story about a woman of color stuck between two random, medium ugly white men.”
“Watched all of Partner Track on Netflix and was just confused for 10 episodes why Ingrid was torn between two boring white dudes when Z [played by Chinese Australian Desmond Chiam] the hot, morally good, eco activist is standing right there,” quips one commentator on Twitter.
While I generally agree that Ingrid’s two main suitors—a suffocatingly nice billionaire and an overly suave colleague with an English accent—aren’t that scintillating, I’m not completely convinced that Z, the brawny Korean American environmentalist, is that exciting either. Maybe it’s just me but I find earnest do-gooders rather tedious.
In any case, the criticism boils down to the notion that Ingrid is not sufficiently Asian in either her personal or professional life. But isn’t that 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 deemed authentic?
“All this falls in the you-can’t-please-everyone bucket,” said Wan, author of “The Partner Track,” a 2013 novel. “Someone complained that it was a missed opportunity to do a deeper dive into the legal profession, while another one said, ‘I love ‘Sex and the City’ but this is so weighed down by serious issues.’”
Still, I don’t disagree with the criticism that it could have been much tighter. I wish the show had maintained its gimlet eye instead of lapsing into occasions of sappiness and pseudo despair. Did we really need the main characters to ask out loud if there’s more to life than working in Big Law or deliver some bromide about following one’s dreams?
While Wan’s book had nuance and cohesiveness, the series played it with a heavy hand. Though White male privilege was a subtext in the book, the show goes overboard, portraying the male lawyers as a bunch of frat brothers on spring break.
But it’s perhaps pointless to judge the show in that light.
“Representation matters,” Lee said. “When I graduated from law school, I watched ‘Ally McBeal.’ I never expected to see an Asian American woman as the main character. I feel a bit sad that my old self couldn’t imagine that. It’s meaningful to have characters that look like you. I didn’t realize I’d embrace the show as much as I have. I shouldn’t be limited to fun shows with White people in my down 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 struggled to be recognized simply as a good lawyer. “It’s so cringy that someone will introduce you as an Asian female lawyer rather than as a lawyer. To me, it’s a clear portrayal of what Asian American women encounter.”
Another fan is Eliana Torres, who recently joined Nixon Peabody as an IP associate: “That she speaks Korean to her family on the show was meaningful—I related to it 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 work.”
“I’m hearing from a lot of diverse lawyers, as well as White men, who said it’s a long time coming,” Wan said. “This story is being told—on frickin’ Netflix!—with an Asian female director, an Asian female lead, based on a book by an Asian female author.”
“Partner Track” might not be in the league of “The Good Wife,” “Boston Legal,” or “L.A. Law"—my personal favorite. But does that matter?