Lateral Career Moves in the Time of COVID-19—Should I Even Think About it? – An Auto Racing Metaphor

“There is so much unknown about the current COVID-19 that I don’t know what to do. Should I even be thinking about my career in a time like this?” That’s a question I’ve been asked frequently in the past few days by quite a few law firm partners. I’ve told many of them the following story and it has helped add perspective to the situation...

Many years ago, I spent about nine months working with Indy 500 champion Bobby Unser on a business book titled, Winners Are Driven, in which we used racing as the metaphor for success. Having dusted off an old copy just last week, it occurred to me that one way to help explain metaphorically the COVID-19 situation we are now in is to compare it to a major auto race, be it Indy, NASCAR, etc., with the racecars being the law firms and the track being the economy as whole.

Imagine it’s lap 125 of a 200-lap race, and all of the sudden appearing on the backside of turn 4 is a boatload of unknown debris. The first cars through the debris suffer the most damage as some run head on into it, some downshift too fast blowing transmissions, others swerve into the wall, some crash into each other, etc. The next wave of cars fares marginally better, though some hit trailing debris and blow out tires, suffer some body damage, etc. The final wave has a bit more time to react and are able, for the most part, to navigate the debris and downshift more slowly and keep their cars intact. Whether a law firm falls into “wave 1, 2 or 3” will depend on myriad factors, such as the firm’s historical financial strength, the effectiveness of its management, the wherewithal of its clients, its practice area concentration, etc.

Next, running under the cautionary yellow flag, the remaining cars slow down (e.g., law firms getting comfortable with remote working) as the emergency response vehicles attend to the situation on the track--treating any injured drivers and commencing the process of clearing the debris; however long that may take. Meanwhile, the damaged cars are relegated to pit row to see which, if any, can be salvaged and returned eventually to the race, or at least be repaired to run in a subsequent race.

When the track is cleared, the pace car will slowly accelerate to the point where the remaining cars are back up to racing speed, at which time the pace car will leave the track.

So, getting back to the question above: Is it appropriate to be thinking about lateral career moves during moments like the present? Indeed, it is. If nothing else, you need to have a sense of where you’ll be when the pace car leaves the track and what you want to do next.

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