As I write this book review, I am about to transition between jobs: from a federal judicial law clerk on the West Coast to a BigLaw associate attorney in Manhattan. At age 25, I graduated from Harvard Law School last May and passed the July New York Bar Exam. My attorney swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for the day before my upcoming birthday in my namesake month.
As a young Asian woman embarking on my legal career and a long-time freelance writer currently working on a legal thriller romance novel, two novels are especially fitting for this period of my life: Supreme Ambitions by David Lat and The Partner Trackby Helen Wan. Both authors have been very successful and ambitious lawyers themselves who strive to portray the legal profession as accurately as possible in their fiction. Both authors, like their protagonists, are Asian American. I had the pleasure of getting coffee with David in Cambridge, MA talk right before the pandemic, shortly after I read Supreme Ambitions for the first time and asked everyone around me to read it too. To this day, I still highly recommend the book, including re-reading it with my boyfriend recently. I just finished reading The Partner Track after hearing that it will be a Netflix series soon, and similarly enjoyed devouring the book. Although David Lat did an interview with Helen Wan to discuss her book before publishing his, I’m not aware of book reviews that specifically compare both novels, and hope to offer a personal perspective for readers.
The protagonists of Supreme Ambitions and The Partner Track, Audrey Coyne and Ingrid Yung, are both young Asian American lawyers in this elite profession. They boast similarly impressive resumés, and both have great career ambitions. While Supreme Ambitions focuses on prestigious federal judicial clerkships, The Partner Track zooms in on corporate law life for BigLaw attorneys. Supreme Ambitions is primarily set in Pasadena, California, while The Partner Track is set in Manhattan, New York City. For Audrey, who is a Ninth Circuit clerk, the prize she is coveting is a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship; for Ingrid, it is the law firm partnership. Both women work extremely hard to accomplish their goals: long hours in the office, sleep deprivation, a sacrificed social life, and lack of romance are part of the price they pay for their coveted prizes.
There are many common themes and elements in the two novels. This book review selects a few of these that stood out the most to me.
I. Romance vs. Ambition
The most interesting one to me, given the genre of my own novel-in-progress, is the interplay and potential conflicts between professional ambition and romance in an elite environment. In college, a frequent tradeoff people like to reference, perhaps jokingly, is whether you would choose sleep, social life, and academics if you cannot “have it all.” After leaving the loving and caring college/law school bubble, we are confronted with a harsher reality of balancing more adult responsibilities with everything else without the same level of flexibility as we had in school. Both novels’ lead characters, Audrey and Ingrid, have been single (since…roughly forever) at the start of the books (and indeed, for most of the chapters). They both attribute their busy professional pursuits as the main culprit. Ingrid, especially, faces constant familial pressure to get married soon. As a Chinese-American woman in her thirties, Ingrid battles with the cultural expectations that a woman needs to get married and have children before the childbearing age escapes her. This is hardly surprising even in today’s progressive society—a number of recent TV series explore similar pressure and demands.
In law school, I frequently heard about the dangers of dating a fellow future lawyer (of course, I also know many happy lawyer couples). A friend who is a few years older than me told me that her law school boyfriend stabbed her in the back quite a bit, such as purposely making her late to class and being generally disdainful of her academic achievements. In The Partner Track, the protagonist Ingrid, who is a senior associate, observes that her male counterparts in their mid-to-late-thirties can casually date around twenty-something paralegals and bartenders without being judged, when by contrast, the very few women who persevere for years at a BigLaw firm have all sorts of criteria for their significant others, especially professional and academic qualifications. Naturally, I was keen to find out more about the characters’ love lives: do they date fellow law clerks/associates? Are those relationships healthy and sustainable? How much backstabbing is involved?
In Supreme Ambitions, the main character Audrey develops romantic tension with one of her co-clerks, who recently broke up with his ex-girlfriend. The romantic interest character is portrayed in a very positive light. Despite a first kiss between the characters that appeared not too late in the novel, and despite their mutual feelings, Audrey quickly decides that they cannot start the office romance and pours her heart and soul in her work. Her hard work pays off in impressing her judge/boss, who recommends her to one of the nine Supreme Court (SCOTUS) justices as a law clerk. When a law clerk from a different judge’s chambers in the same building gets an interview offer from the same SCOTUS Justice, Audrey discovers that her rival happens to be romantically interested in her. Audrey takes to heart her boss’ advice that to be a successful career woman, you have to be a little monstrous. Although Audrey is straight and knows that fact, she seduces the lesbian rival and gets the rival hopelessly drunk on the eve of the rival’s SCOTUS interview with a kiss on the lips. Surely, the rival flunks her interview. Not to spoil too much of the plot, but at least up till this point of the novel’s plot, we know that the stereotypical admonition against dating a fellow lawyer has some validity here in terms of the danger of being backstabbed.
The same backstabbing by a romantic interest theme is sadly present in The Partner Track too. Having read many novels where the charismatic male protagonist is too good to be true and is in fact an awful human being, I anticipated how much of an asshole Ingrid’s boyfriend would turn out to be as soon as I read about their romantic sparks. Sure enough, the male senior associate Ingrid starts dating is competing with her for the same law firm partnership slot. While Ingrid daydreams about the “Ms. Partner” and “Mr. Partner” partnership and looks forward to the day they are law firm partners together, opting to keep their relationship a secret at the firm for now, the guy is busy boasting about their relationship to fellow male lawyers at the firm with racist and sexist undertones. More fatally, he finds a way to plant obvious errors in Ingrid’s deliverables to one of the firm’s most important clients, knowing that she would not have time to review the already-perfected version again before the client meeting and therefore attempting to screw up her chance at the partnership just a few days before the partnership vote. While Ingrid expects her boyfriend to understand her busy schedule and career ambitions that mirror his own, ultimately, such trust is misplaced. While at the end of the book, we see Ingrid living happily with her new boyfriend, we might be left with a slight worry for her — after all, the new boyfriend is also a partner at the same BigLaw firm. We can only wish Ingrid all the best (in her fictional world).
Audrey’s other co-clerks and friends in Supreme Ambitions all appear to be single. Romance is discussed for those characters relatively infrequently, if at all. In The Partner Track, Ingrid’s happily-married best friend exemplifies the formerly ambitious, career-driven women who exit from the legal profession to focus on their families, finding BigLaw too difficult to juggle with their happy home lives. The best friend (whose husband is not a lawyer) who went to law school together with Ingrid frequently expresses how much she wishes she had stayed in the profession, like Ingrid, and talks about living vicariously through Ingrid in the law profession. In fact, the best friend seems to be the only genuine friend Ingrid has (Audrey is in a similar boat, with one close law school friend who is also clerking on the Ninth Circuit; Audrey does make a new friend from her apartment who, curiously, also becomes a SCOTUS clerk in the end, but hardly mentions keeping in touch with other friends, especially non-lawyers). At various points of the novel, The Partner Track author Helen Wan seems to let the reader be the judge: who’s happier, Ingrid, or the best friend? I think that remains an open question for the readers to consider, even when Ingrid appears to “have it all” by the end of the book, with her own law firm successfully operating with a talented team of young lawyers and her new relationship appearing to be a happy one.
In short, both novels feature romance and present it as a challenge to the characters’ ambitions. The protagonists have both seem initially resistant, and purposefully so, to commit to a romance for a long time. Notwithstanding the positive developments on this front in both novels, readers might find ourselves wondering how one can better resolve these tensions to thrive in the legal profession ambitiously while loving, and being loved, happily.
II. General Toxicity of the Legal Profession
When I started thinking about going to law school, the few lawyers I knew at the time tended to voice one form of dissatisfaction or the other about the legal profession. I found myself spending hours and hours reading about “the unhappy lawyer” at the Hong Kong Central Library. I continue to read a lot, and see a lot, of unhappy lawyers. The legal profession has its glories, tempting young people to join because of the broad principles of justice and/or the materialistic allure of swanky offices and firms that wine and dine associates. The same profession, however, also suffers from high depression and suicide rates, alcoholism, and drug abuse issues.
Both David Lat and Helen Wan’s books explore and critique the ugly sides of the legal profession. Addiction to prestige is one of the common themes in both books. There is always something greater—always, as Audrey’s judge remarks in Supreme Ambitions. A high schooler gets into a great college and graduates with honors, graduate fellowships, and leadership positions in multiple student organizations — sounds like a good start, though that’s not the end. A great law school, Law Review position, legal publications — not done, either. Federal clerkship — good (district, circuit, or Supreme?), but what’s next? Top NYC BigLaw firm — ok, maybe work as a prosecutor, legal academic, law firm partner, or judge next? Made partner — ooh, definitely not an easy path so far, but as The Partner Track reveals, there are partners, and there are partners. There seems to be an almost uniformly acknowledged path to what’s most prestigious, and the professional environment is notoriously cut-throat, from law school onward.
Both of these novels provide illustrations to that thesis. Protagonists Audrey and Ingrid may be at different stages of their legal careers, but they are similar in having fearsome bosses. Audrey’s judge is herself driven by a supreme ambition — to become the first Asian SCOTUS justice, and is often unethical in striving to achieve that goal, staying true to her advice for Audrey of being “monstrous.” Ingrid’s boss, a senior law firm partner who is incredibly powerful at the firm, recruits Ingrid against her will to be the poster child of the firm’s diversity initiative/damage control strategy. He has contradicted himself in asking Ingrid to put her 110% effort in a big client matter and later telling her “don’t take it so fucking seriously” when she essentially sleeps in the office to perfect the work products.
Questionable work environments are the status quo in both books. From its first page, The Partner Track portrays the fictionalized BigLaw firm as a stereotypical American high school-fraternity hybrid, where the white males dominate and where you sit in the internal cafeteria matters a lot to everyone. Indeed, people often analogize law school, and by extension, the legal profession, with high school; the bad parts of high school, specifically. For a Chinese-American woman like Ingrid, blending in requires a lot of effort, but even though she has blended in, at least on the surface, many challenges remain. Even her white boyfriend who backstabs her often feels like an outsider in the system, illustrating the “imposter syndrome” idea that is omnipresent in elite professions such as the law. Although a somewhat tamer version of the BigLaw office, the judicial chambers where Audrey works is not free from micro-aggressions, even with the small number of staff members. One of her co-clerks backstabs their judge out of resentment, and Audrey, inspired by her judge’s monstrosity, compromises her co-clerk’s SCOTUS clerkship ambitions by blackmailing him. Another one of her co-clerks, much like another senior associate and a paralegal in The Partner Track, was hired simply because their parents or in-laws are important friends or clients of the partner and judge. That co-clerk is obviously incompetent and unenthusiastic about the clerkship, which is a very coveted position that many talented law students across the nation routinely gun for. Personally, I found this element of both novels fascinating, as people tend to associate guanxi with China. Both novels show that in corporate America, guanxi is far from being an alien subject in practice.
It is satisfying that both Audrey and Ingrid succeed on their own merits at the end of the novels. Ingrid even gets her revenge on her former boss, boyfriend, and law firm in general. That shouldn’t the end of our inquiry, though. Although it has been a few years since David Lat and Helen Wan published the novels, the legal profession still has many of the negative aspects that both lawyer-turned-authors eloquently critique in their books. On the bright side of things, the profession has been constantly adapting and innovating (e.g. COVID-19 pandemic-era remote work, diversity initiatives, affinity groups, mentorship structure, legal tech, and flexible work models such as Peerpoint by Allen & Overy are some examples that come to mind). However, entrenched principles such as billable hours remain, leaving people to debate how efficient such incentive and work structure is.
Last but not least, I will include some brief remarks on the Asian-ness of the protagonists and the role it plays in both books.
The Supreme Ambitions protagonist is half-Asian, like her judge/boss. The Partner Track’s protagonist, like the author, is Taiwanese American. There are some parallels between the Asian stereotypes in both books, such as the model minority idea and the quiet, silent Asian girl stereotype. I’m happy to see that both characters defy the quiet Asian girl stereotype, and can sympathize with several elements in the book that showcase the kind of racism this demographic group routinely experiences.
I also find the Asian mums in the novels interesting or endearing. Audrey’s family cannot understand why, instead of getting the fancy BigLaw salary and perks, she goes for a clerkship. After all, they remark, isn’t a clerk like a sales clerk or something? You suffered through law school and worked so hard to be a clerk? The judicial clerkship is truly an interesting position that is a foreign concept in many countries. Even in the U.S., non-lawyers may know little about this role. Ingrid’s mum, on the other hand, is quite a character. It’s amusing that she likes calling up Ingrid’s law firm office phone number just to hear the secretary say “Ms. Yung’s office. May I help you?” She encourages her to meet the sons of her friends as potential boyfriend materials. Ingrid’s parents insist that Ingrid not work too hard and worries about her, and are not sad at all when Ingrid leaves the law firm. The caring attributes of Ingrid’s family is very relatable, as my own family care most about my health and happiness, unlike the stereotypical Asian tiger mums and dads.
One moment of The Partner Track that is particularly memorable is that when Ingrid takes a walk for the first time after spending days in bed being distressed over her law firm firing, she gets mistakaen for a nearby baby’s nanny. A white woman insists that Ingrid takes her phone number down, as she has friends who want nannies who “speak Asian.” Yes, I’m also wondering since when there’s a language called “Asian.”