What The Partner Track Gets Wrong About Asian American Female Lawyers
As a Chinese American attorney, I was eagerly awaiting the TV adaptation of Helen Wan’s novel, The Partner Track. Wan is Chinese, and an alumna of both my high school and my law school. Her novel’s story follows a Chinese American woman as she seeks to become the first Asian partner in her law firm. Similarly, when I was working at a law firm, I was the most senior minority female associate. So this TV show was basically a televised version of my life.
My First Impressions of The Partner Track
When I saw the trailer, I was embarrassed. It seemed like an afterthought that the protagonist was an attorney. The show centered on her dating life and cast her as Cinderella, complete with a baby blue dress. Still, I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt.
After watching the first season, I’m livid. I understand that because it’s a TV show, it’s not meant to be accurate. But I had hope that the show would at least be intelligent. Instead, it was clearly written by Los Angelenos who had never worked in an office before and who don’t understand the corporate ladder, let alone how to climb it. The Partner Track gets nearly everything wrong about being an Asian American female lawyer.
Every Mistake a Minority Female Can Make to Keep From Succeeding
When I was watching the show, I initially had a drinking game for every time legal malpractice was committed. But another drinking game I was considering was for every mistake protagonist Ingrid Yun makes on how to advance in her workplace.
There are so many difficulties that minorities and women face in the law, but Ingrid was always at a disadvantage because she was playing the wrong game. Instead of getting ahead, Ingrid was acting out all the stereotypes that traditionally dog Asians in corporate culture – like being a hard worker but lacking soft skills. She was always holding out hope that someone was keeping tabs on the hours, and not the results.
To me, it would have been more interesting had she learned of her mistake and tried to course correct. I would have loved to see Ingrid be commanding, charismatic, and compassionate. Instead, Ingrid committed the following major errors that no one should make when trying to advance at a law firm. [SPOILER ALERT!]
Don’t Fall for the Myth of Hard Work.
In the opening monologue, Ingrid asserts “I know if I work harder than anyone else. . . I’ll make partner.” Upon hearing that, I wanted to slam my head against the wall.
Multiple characters mention how hard Ingrid works, and how that hard work will be noticed and recognized with partnership. But law firms do not lack for hard workers. Soft skills and client development, however, are rare. Many law firms base their partnership decisions on one’s book of business – that is, having loyal clients.
Clients means money, which means they can keep the law firm going and pay all their fancy associates, like Ingrid, who never bring in any money. Ingrid never learns this and it becomes less and less believable that she believes she compares favorably to her main rival, Dan, who everyone talks about having a very big book. Instead, it seems like Ingrid is taking the approach of destroying Dan to get ahead. But given how big Dan’s book is, she could actually be destroying the firm.
It’s the Book, Stupid.
Dan is a lock for partner track because he has a big book of business. This explanation is meant to make the audience throw their fists in the air because life isn’t fair. Dan has all these connections just because his family is rich and Ingrid can’t ever compete with that.
But let’s unpack this a little. Dan always brings up people he knows, not people his parents know. Dan keeps close connections with his college buddies and the judge he clerked for- those relationships are years old and not a result of his parentage. That takes work.
But Dan was privileged enough to meet rich and powerful people and Ingrid doesn’t have any connections! Wait, that’s not true. Ingrid is dating the most eligible bachelor in New York, Nick Laren, an extremely wealthy and well-connected heir. At one point, Marty mentions Ingrid should bring her boyfriend to a work event. Ingrid could and should have flaunted Nick around to burnish her credentials while the committee is making partner decisions. Is this using Nick? Nick is so in love with her, he’d gladly play along. Further, she brought Nick to the event anyway, so it’s not like she’s above using him.
Ingrid also has other connections. Ingrid’s work husband, Tyler, is dating a well-connected politician. Ingrid went to Harvard Law School and she has worked at this prestigious law firm for six years. She could be making connections with potential clients, but she never does. It’s not simply a question of privilege; Dan is doing the work that Ingrid isn’t.
Work Smarter, not Harder.
Ingrid works hard but inefficiently. In one episode, Ingrid is tasked with basically finding a document in a haystack. And instead of getting help from her secretary or paralegal, she does it herself with another senior associate. That’s a huge waste of her time. Further, Marty gives her a deadline of 8pm, and we realize, when the secretary tells her it’s 8:30pm, that Ingrid missed the deadline. What good is your amazing insight if it comes too late? She’s sacrificing but she doesn’t get results and no one is impressed by that.
As much as we hear about Ingrid’s work ethic, Dan is working on several deals (Luxe, the brewery, Grammy Goose) while Ingrid is only staffed on one. Dan is also always chatting and having fun with his colleagues. He seems to be getting a lot more done even though it’s Ingrid in the office day and night. Dan is working smarter, Ingrid is working harder. One is better than the other.
In the first twenty minutes of the show, Ingrid’s paralegal blatantly disrespects her three times. Ingrid’s coworker, Rachel, upbraids the paralegal on Ingrid’s behalf, which makes Ingrid look incredibly weak. Ingrid is the only person shown being treated disrespectfully. One could say it’s because she’s Asian or because she’s a minority, but we also see the other Asian, female, and black associates being treated as poorly.
Also, the disrespect permeates all Ingrid’s relationships, so it’s more a pattern surrounding her specifically. Her sister doesn’t show the slightest compunction for burning down her apartment or putting her in jail. [Read that sentence again].The relationship between Murphy, her colleague, and Nick, her boyfriend, is openly hostile. This is in no small part to Ingrid not putting the kibosh on the disrespect. It is hugely disrespectful that these two central characters in her life would treat each other this poorly in front of her. Further, Ingrid’s work friends treat Ingrid like a child. She runs to them and they coddle and soothe her; at no point, do they ever ask Ingrid for help or advice. Also, Ingrid never asks about their lives or problems. She’s completely absorbed with her own life.
Ingrid doesn’t have to act like a jerk to get respect. For instance, she could try the compassionate route and get to know her paralegal. Instead, she responds with eye rolling and a dismissive attitude. We find out later that the paralegal is the son of Marty’s friend. Thus, Ingrid should treat the paralegal well, even if only for her own naked self-interest. (Also, Marty shows his own people skills inviting this paralegal to hang out with him. That’s above and beyond what a partner needs to do, even if he is friends with his father).
Maybe if Ingrid treated the paralegal with more kindness and respect, he would respond likewise. In any case, Ingrid’s current schemes clearly aren’t working.
Don’t Go Solo.
In the opening meeting with Ted Lassiter, Ingrid comes in early with the paralegal The client mistakes her for the secretary and we are all supposed to think, what a racist guy. But let’s analyze this from his perspective. Ted knows he’s working with Marty and Marty picked Dan to be on his team, whom Ted has never met. The male paralegal could be Dan, but Ingrid could not. And look, I know they had to make her outfit cute because it’s TV, but a corporate NYC associate is unlikely to wear a pink suit to a meeting with a client – a secretary would.
Dan shows up with Marty. This is a position of strength that they show up together and that Marty introduces them. This will be a recurring theme that Ingrid always goes in solo while the other associates back each other up or are backed by the partner. Ingrid is so concerned with being early for meetings, that she doesn’t notice optics or client relationships. It becomes more and more apparent that no one is backing Ingrid.
It’s the People, Stupid.
We are supposed to roll our eyes when Dan makes small talk. But the clients clearly like Dan. He charms them. Speaking of charm, Marty brings Murphy to dinner with Ted because of Murphy’s charm. The M&A guys invite Murphy to chat with them on his first night at the firm. while Ingrid, who has been working there for six years, doesn’t get greeted by or greet her colleagues.
Throughout the season, Marty is seen privately hanging out with Dan, Murphy, and the paralegal, and Ingrid seems oblivious to the fact that everyone is hanging out with the partner who is making all the decisions – always without her. One could say it’s a boys’ club, but it never seems like Ingrid has even tried to befriend any of her colleagues or even realizes that she should be invited or in these conversations. She’s not self-aware enough to ask if she’s doing something wrong. Instead she’s too busy toiling alone in her office.
Talk the Talk.
It’s not surprising why no one wants to talk to Ingrid. In her first conversation with Murphy, she rudely dismisses him as a spoiled rich kid like Dan. We later learn Murphy grew up poor. You can’t say stuff like that and expect not to be hated.
And let’s not forget that she left Murphy stranded in the dark at the client site when she forgot to charge their boss’s Tesla. Her boyfriend openly mocked Murphy even as Murphy was doing Ingrid a favor by staying with the car so Ingrid could go home to her family. The human thing to do is to profusely thank him, chide your boyfriend for being so rude to your kind colleague, and check to make sure the car and he got home safe. Also, Murphy was nice enough to bring her lunch even after she derided him for needing to eat. Ingrid is terrible to Murphy and it’s not really surprising that he betrays her.
Ingrid also whines that her Asian female mentor never talks to her but Ingrid’s attempt to chat the woman up consisted of an extremely awkward “how are you?” with no follow-up. They could talk shop or she could ask about family or upcoming vacations. Heck, they could talk about the weather. But Ingrid expects the senior partner to do the heavy lift on conversations that clearly only benefit her. If this is Ingrid’s idea of conversation then no wonder the mentor never warmed to her. Then, without a note of hypocrisy, Ingrid avoids her own mentee like the plague. Ingrid doesn’t have basic social skills and she doesn’t care to.
Make the Right Associations.
At the firm, Ingrid only associates with her Harvard Law classmates. As noted above, Ingrid doesn’t mix with the other M&A associates, even though they all seem to hang out together without her. Even her friends have friends in other departments (Tyler has Todd, an M&A associate, and Rachel seems to have a lot of friends at the firm) but Ingrid only has her two associate friends, neither of whom are helpful for her career trajectory.
Ingrid doesn’t have a good relationship with the support staff either, to her detriment. Ingrid has to bribe Marty’s secretary to find out where he’s at dinner; meanwhile, Murphy is at dinner with Marty. If Ingrid had cultivated a relationship with the secretary, the secretary could have been an invaluable resource. She, for instance, could tip Ingrid off to dinners like this before they happen. Clearly Murphy wasn’t going to help Ingrid out.
It’s telling that before Ingrid finds out about the dinner, the paralegal calls Ingrid a shut-in, pitiably. Ingrid has locked herself away working while the other associates have all been playing the game, the correct game. Ingrid thinks she should be promoted because she’s quietly sacrificing herself but no one cares. Everyone else is doing the work and having fun.
Be a Team Player.
It can’t be lost on Marty that Ingrid went behind Dan’s back to secure her position on the deal in the first episode. Yes, Dan may have taken Ingrid’s idea earlier, but he didn’t make her look bad. Marty’s first impression of Ingrid was her betrayal of Dan on Dan’s own deal. Later Ingrid tries to have Dan fired. And remember she left Murphy by himself with Marty’s car. When making partner decisions, why should Marty think that Ingrid is above undermining him or anyone else to get ahead? She doesn’t care about anyone but herself.
[Also, can we discuss how implausible Ingrid’s story must have sounded? To be true, Dan leaked confidential information to his Department of Energy contact – why? Then, even though the DOE is in DC, and doesn’t pay much, DOE guy is in New York City at this high-priced gala, magically found by the only reporter covering the story. Ingrid magically runs into DOE guy who tells her everything. Instead of trying to quash the story by casting doubt on this unlikely source to her reporter contact who knows and trusts her, Ingrid runs straight to her boss to rat on Dan. A more plausible story is that Ingrid, pissed that she isn’t on the deal, leaked the information herself to her reporter contact to make Dan look bad. This also explains why she doesn’t give the basic courtesy to tell Dan what’s going on in HIS case.]
In the first episode, a client asks Ingrid for a drink, and she orders her paralegal to get it. Later, when a client asks Dan for a Shasta, he immediately goes out to retrieve it. As much as we’d expect Dan to be an entitled prick, he is not above this menial task. That can make a good impression on a client and on a managing partner. And you’d have to be blind not to see that Dan is always chatting with his M&A colleagues. He shares beer from his brewery deal with the entire office. Dan is popular. And though we like to think the nerd always wins, people like likable.
Don’t Be a Bad Stereotype
Ingrid Yun is a walking stereotype. In the corporate world, Asian Americans are stereotyped as smart, quiet, technically competent, and socially awkward. They don’t fit into the corporate culture, aren’t team players, and lack assertiveness and leadership. Asian American women are further stereotyped as being ultrafeminine and bad drivers.
Ingrid fits all these stereotypes. She calls herself “sweet and polite” at one point in contrast to Murphy’s “charming,” which, how SAD! Ingrid is so boring. The most excitement she showed in the series was when she talked about “spelunking” – looking for red flags in documents. Her conversations with her friends revolve around her own anxiety and obsession with work. Of course she was a Girl Scout. She’s a buzzkill. A buzzkill who wears more pink than Barbie (and look, pink is my favorite color, but her outfits are over-the-top girly and out of place compared to everyone else in the firm, including her friend Rachel).
Ingrid has no friends and doesn’t fit into the company culture. She doesn’t even fit into her own personal culture as shown when Rachel calls Ingrid out for her lack of solidarity with her own best friend, Tyler, when he was clearly devastated by the office retreat. Ingrid lacks the business mind to even understand how to get ahead. She’s a very type-A, gold star, narcissistic person. It’s unclear why anyone is friends with her except that she’s so pretty that men throw themselves at her. She’s a big dull dud compared to her friends. Why couldn’t the writers give Ingrid a personality and interests? Why can’t she be moral or fun? Instead, she’s a cold nerd obsessed with success.
Is it unfair that the firm promotes the rich white guy with a robust business portfolio, who does four times as much work, and charms his colleagues and clients over the Asian American associate who has no business, is awkward and conniving, but works really hard? No.
Conclusion – What The Partner Track Gets Wrong About Asian American Women Lawyers
The Partner Track gets a lot wrong about being an Asian American female lawyer. And the worst part of this show is what could have been. Asian Americans and women face a number of challenges in working in the corporate law firm environment that could have been addressed using a competent, compelling protagonist. The show could have explored how difficult it can be to succeed even if you didn’t have all of Ingrid’s shortcomings. I would have loved to see Ingrid do all the things Dan does, and then not get promoted. That would have been interesting.
Because even though I point out all these actions Ingrid could have taken, those actions have their own pitfalls. The Partner Track could have shown how difficult it can be for women to be tough AND likable, or how any initiative from a woman can be misinterpreted as romantic interest. The show could have addressed the difficulty minorities face in trying to help other each other up the corporate ladder, the difficulty Asian Americans face in scaling the law ladder with so few role models, or the complicated dynamics between different minority groups. Instead we got a frothy romcom and the main question I kept asking was, why doesn’t she just quit and marry one of these wealthy guys? They’re the only ones that like her after all.