It seems a lifetime ago now that L.A. Law introduced us to the eligible female lawyer. A decade later it would be Ally McBeal. Characters portrayed by Susan Dey and then Calista Flockhart excited an ambition in some young women to become high-powered legal professionals. But mostly it was an opportunity to wear expensive skirt suits and eat sushi for lunch. Don’t take my word for it. As a junior high student, I recall at least half a dozen girls dressing up as lawyers for Halloween each year. You could say it was the stereotypically overachieving Asian American’s version of a “sexy witch.” Ask them how important these TV role models were.
Today’s crop of legal dramas on TV still feature young professional women, but their eligibility (for sex) is ambiguous and their career ambitions border on Machiavellian. Exhibits A, B and C: Damages, The Good Wife and the rotating cast of assistant D.A.s in the Law & Order franchise all feature characters rivaling for power, regardless of whomever they’re sleeping with.
Recently, I had a chance to talk with Helen Wan, the author of The Partner Track, a novel whose protagonist fits somewhere in that caucus of women, adding racial and generational conflict to the trope. Wan’s book follows the travails of Ingrid Yung, an Asian-American ace, an HR wet dream, making her way in and out of and back in to the good graces of the corporate law complex as a high-powered mergers and acquisitions attorney.
Ingrid is a senior associate at the corporate law firm Parsons Valentine & Hunt LLP, based in New York City. At the offset the firm is poised to bring a Big Energy (SunCorp) acquisition to market, and a senior partner, Marty Adler, assigns Ingrid to the account. This sets in motion Ingrid’s upward propulsion to partner status. While real life law firms and law publications like Cleary Gottlieb and Above the Law are mentioned to give the story a dimension of believability, Wan’s done an incredible job fabricating up a thorough legal overture, including legal clauses most readers won’t have ever heard of. It’s worth reading for the pulp. In the narrative’s central deal, the candidly overachieving, unironically bourgeois Ingrid is haunted by the context of her success. Aerobic episodes of legal discursives are punctuated by answering machine messages left in Mandarin by her mother begging daughter to call or come back home already. Meanwhile, she bristles with lunchroom politics, opting for lasagne over teriyaki, and settles in with a Soho-appropriate glass of Pinot Grigio after a particularly grueling shift in the Old Boy’s Club.
After playing political jenga with competitors, colleagues, peers and executive secretaries, Ingrid is unceremoniously (and shockingly) passed up for that partner seat and dismissed from the firm, dealing a huge shock to her and all around her. It’s only after all this, however, in her final deliverance, that Ingrid makes The Partner Track a tale of redemption.
“I didn’t want her to get married, or discovered she liked dogs enough to start a dog-walking business,” Wan says, when we chatted recently about avoiding the pitfalls of a women-positive ending. I ask her how she planned on giving Ingrid a happy ending without undermining the bad guy profession she happened to excel at. [Spoiler Alert] “I couldn’t have her go back to her job.” I add that she also couldn’t work client-side for Big Energy, either. Instead, Ingrid becomes a media sensation after the public dismissal from Parsons Valentine & Hunt, and starts her own firm; she eschews office events at country clubs originally formed exclusively for white men, opting instead to accompany her staff on The Cyclone at Coney Island.
“Lawyers are probably the most reviled profession in pop culture, or at least for as long as I’ve been paying attention to media tropes,” Wan freely admits. She realizes the moral ambiguity of the profession is at odds with the redemptive tale of a woman of color breaking professional barriers, but she also wanted to avoid chick lit tropes like marriage or relationships, and the infantilization of female professionalism (e.g. dog-walking as a solution to “real world” stress).
“I hope I made her back story in the beginning vivid enough that the reader would understand Ingrid might not have planned it, but she’s damned good at her job. I wanted to make that [success] really complicated for her character.”
Still, Wan admits that when shopping the book, editors were initially irked by the fact that this was a story about a lawyer. Would the reader empathize with such a loathsome profession? Would it be different if Ingrid were, say, a Creative Director at an ad agency?
It’s one thing to watch an equally misogynistic office culture in a show like Mad Men, for example, which gets away with its false starts in political messaging because it is set in the near past and promotes advertising as Art. The same dynamics set in a contemporary law firm are more difficult to tolerate but no less self-aware in this novel. And yet we delight in the revulsion of these stuffy male characters that prevent women from succeeding. Many of those men still flourish, and are far from fictional.
“Everyone knows about those senior partners, the older generation of attorneys, who still don’t know how to use email. They have assistants take dictations on Dictaphones.” As we speak about how media-savvy lawyers are in actuality, Wan suggests the generational divide represents an evolution in the broader culture of legal professions. In fact, the media is a secondary character in The Partner Track, whereby reputation, public appearances, and social scandals outweigh the gravity of actual law when it comes to professional success. The media is on Ingrid’s side when shit hits the fan at Parsons Valentine & Hunt, so whether the law complex forgives or accepts an independent woman is moot. Given how repulsed the typical public will be by the evil lawyer, how entertained we are by the workplace misogyny of a sixties ad agency, how complacent we are to a 21st century corporate law firm that vaunts the sexual eligibility of women, it’s appropriate that the winner in The Partner Track should simply be the most likeable woman.
Catch Helen Wan in conversation with Anne Ishii tonight at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.