Volume 19, Number 4
Lawyers Respond to September 11
By Christina Kallas
I have always known New Yorkers to be an intrepid lot. During the blackout of 1965, when the entire Northeast was without power, people directed traffic with flashlights or ate by candlelight at the closest restaurant, confident that soon the power would be back on. And it was. During the blackout of 1999, when all of Manhattan north of 145th Street was suddenly without power, I did what any sensible person would do in the scorching heat of the summer: I left my office and went to the movies on 96th Street.
But since September 11, the world has seen what New Yorkers-and all U.S. citizens-can do when faced with an unfathomable situation. This spirit of determination has been notably evident among lawyers with whom I have spoken about moving forward after the WTC disaster.
What It Was Like
The difficulty of picking up the pieces has varied considerably, depending upon several factors. People like me, whose offices are physically distant from Ground Zero, were in no physical danger. My cable modem kept me connected to everyone worldwide, even when Federal Express and the U.S. Postal Service could not get through to deliver mail. In fact, it was much easier to e-mail my cousins in Athens that I was all right than it was to get through to my sister in Virginia by telephone. Psychologically, it helped enormously that I was able to chat online with my Solosez colleagues that day and thereafter. Without cable access to the Internet and CNN, the sense of isolation would have been frightful, especially because regular television stations couldn't broadcast without the antenna on top of the WTC. Lacking the normal cacophony of buses and subways, the city felt like it had been taken over by aliens.
Telephone service was iffy. I could not make calls on one telephone line for about two days, but I did receive one call on that line-from a Solosez colleague in Glasgow who was concerned about me. We later realized that she had gotten through because her telephone system works off a satellite and was unaffected by the local telephone problems. My second telephone line worked intermittently, so I was able to make some calls out, and I did receive some messages. I was able to leave messages for my husband using his pager service, but he was unable to retrieve them because his NYC public school has only eight telephones and four lines for a staff of nearly 50 adults and a student body of 450. My cell phone was useless. For days, all I could get was a busy signal, possibly because of the extraordinary load while people made emergency calls, possibly because people who normally used land lines made calls from cell phones, and partly because some transmitting facilities were physically destroyed.
I spoke with many lawyers whose offices are physically closer to Ground Zero than mine. So long as their offices were physically unaffected, their cash flows solid, and their reliance on technology and electronic files slight, their primary change was making phone calls from home and waiting to go back to the office to resume daily operations. Some of them were unable to work until they were allowed back into their offices. Often that took longer than anyone imagined-those in the NYC Corporation Counsel's office were allowed to return only in April. Smaller firms in this situation experienced cash flow losses that will never be recouped.
Many lawyers simply were very lucky, because most had no clear contingency plans. Their businesses survived because either their downtime was limited or the public did not expect anyone in Lower Manhattan to be in normal operating mode. (About three days after the disaster I did receive a sales call and was flabbergasted that someone actually phoned the 212 area code to make a quota.) Sometimes small things made a big difference in people's ability to work: Whether your windows faced the Trade Center, whether you had left them open or closed, and whether you had left a lot of papers on your desk made an enormous difference in some cases. My new contingency plan includes closing the windows in my office whenever I leave-even this far away, ashes from the burning debris drifted in the windows all that first week.
Lawyers who worked in or very near the WTC faced a very different reality. Most of my colleagues in small practices had some backup plans, but no one envisioned a disaster of this magnitude, affecting a 20-acre radius, tens of thousands of people, and access to the area for months. Most people hadn't anticipated the need to conduct business with no utility infrastructure. Certain subway and commuter train stations must be rebuilt, and some people have a much longer commute than they anticipated when the locations were first selected.
Telephones gradually started to work again, but getting a sandwich for lunch became an unofficially sanctioned Olympic event for a while; few places were open for business, and going through security checks made leaving offices a chore. People who would not have dreamed of telecommuting on September 10 are letting leases expire and working entirely or partly from home. Even firms with stringent backup procedures did not come out unscathed-many stored original documents in what they believed to be an eminently safe place: a bank vault in the Twin Towers.
What happened is impossible to ignore. Many physical reminders linger: dust still clinging to building windows, the acrid smell in the air, and the constant sounds of cranes loading debris onto trucks that carry it several blocks to waiting barges for the trip to Staten Island. The site is right here, and there is no getting away from the motions it evokes, which vary from person to person and day to day. I am writing this article in February; just last night I spoke on a panel at the N.Y. County Lawyers' Association, barely a half-block from where the towers stood. Coming up from the subway to face a vast open sky in place of what was once there was disconcerting, even now, and several of my colleagues at the meeting expressed similar sentiments. Many of us feel very, very lucky-and a plethora of other emotions, as well. As we process the emotions of staff and colleagues, and our own, a significant loss of productivity becomes apparent, although it is difficult to measure. As a result, I believe, many of us are looking seriously at using technology to boost productivity and move forward..
Some lawyers did have contingency plans in place, and often those plans made a significant difference in recovering. Jay Fleischman, whose offices are only a few blocks from the towers, was fortunate in that he had just leased space for a second office in another location. He had no services there, but he had raw space available. He was in his existing office on September 11 and decided to leave when the second tower fell. He grabbed two laptops, two cell phones, some blank checks for his operating and IOLA accounts, and the tape backup. On September 12 he started damage assessment by arranging for calls to the office to be forwarded to his cell phone. He made more use of his existing Efax.com number account. His Blackberry pager never faltered, but his 800-number service was unreliable. A new marketing campaign that used the number did not generate anywhere near the volume of business he had hoped.
Jay feels that his practice area, which focuses on bankruptcies, will recovery slowly. Many clients for whom he is filing bankruptcy petitions do not have computers and do not use e-mail, so communicating is problematic until telephone service is fully restored. They also seem to fear coming downtown, which has led him to consider seeing clients at their homes or renting a small office at an additional location. Still, he feels that he is lucky; his fiancée worked for a business near Ground Zero that is now closed as a result of the attack.
Larry McGaughey, whose office also is in the Ground Zero vicinity, says he did back up hard drives regularly and stored the tapes off site. He thought he was home free when he remembered to grab the last tape as he left his office but found, ironically, that the new backup tape drive on the office computer was defective-no other tape drive can read tapes made on it. Larry now knows that backing up is only half the story: Testing tapes to see whether they restore the data you need is essential. From now on, Larry plans to restore the data to a backup computer off site. Other lawyers also lost a great deal of data from faulty backup systems or from good backup plans that weren't properly implemented and tested.
Larry ultimately wound up working from his home office for a month. As fate would have it, he had ordered a new computer on September 4, which was delivered to his home-a fortunate mistake!-on September 13. He is the office techie, so he could network the new computer to two others at home, and his staff worked at his house.
This was a terrible time to start learning about networking, as many were forced to do; computer consultants were booked solid for weeks. You don't have to know how to do everything yourself, but you probably should be familiar with your own equipment and its basic workings so you are not dependent on a third party to get your business up and running, especially in a crunch.
Larry's most significant lesson, he reports, is to take technology more seriously and upgrade his entire system so that each work station is faster and has its own Internet access. Because cable is restricted at his location, he is having the building wired for DSL service. In the future, the capacity of a location for Internet access should be part of lease specifications; if you are moving into raw space, include a representation that the building is wired for, or can be wired for, the type of system you prefer.
Larry also intends to upgrade his telephone system. The phones in the office provided no local coverage for a month due to the collapse of WTC Building 7, which was a local central station, although his AT&T long distance service was up and running in a few days. That was not uniformly the case; many people had phone trouble through December. In fact, service at one Community Dispute Resolution Center still does not work properly, and many locations now have different telephone numbers. Larry did buy a cell phone but says phone cards worked much better for him, especially when AT&T was overloaded. He was able to use pay phones to make a local call to Worldcom, and the Worldcom long distance service was terrific. It has also reduced his telephone bill because the rates were lower. Finally, Larry intends to make more efficient use of technology. He had put off using document assembly programs but now believes it will be a good investment of his time and technology dollars.
Technology consultant Carol L. Schlein says that Larry's decision to utilize available technology more efficiently is a smart one. She has worked with many clients who were affected by the disaster and says those with case management systems were much better able to pull themselves together. Lawyers who could reconstruct their caseloads were able to marshal information proving loss for insurance carriers and Small Business Administration (SBA) personnel and quickly received payment under business interruption coverage and from SBA emergency grants. Lawyers using case management software were better able to contact clients, appropriate courts, and opposing counsel and to circulate temporary addresses and phone numbers. One service provider, E-Law, offered as a public service to reconstruct the case calendar of any lawyer directly impacted by the events of 9/11 for no charge-although this is not a recommended backup plan.
Too Many Copies?
Carol's clients were also fortunate that she had copies of information installed on their systems and could provide them with backups. You never can have too many backups stored in different off-site locations.
Some of Carol's clients learned that contingency planning should include the following provisions:
o Have an off-site list of passwords so you can access e-mail and financial accounts from computers outside the office;
o Give more than one person access to the firm safe deposit box, especially if the contents include original client documents like wills; and
o Store original checks off site, or have a source for rush orders of replacement checks.
Carol also sees a great deal more interest in scanning. Lawyers who lost documents at the WTC were simply forced to reconstruct them from case or client file copies. Everything scanned onto a hard drive-with appropriate backup, of course-can be accessed from off-site computers, and you can be back in business within a day. It's a lesson we all may want to think about.
Sometimes knowing who to turn to for help is key. As fate would have it, the American Lawyer Media (ALM) show, Legal Tech, was scheduled to take place in New York at the end of September. As a result, a number of consultants (some lawyers, some not) were present in New York-some of the best-informed technology consultants in the country. ALM immediately revised the agenda of Legal Tech, adding relevant, free sessions to the program and opening admission to anyone impacted by the disaster. Many of the presenters worked on a Technology Triage program sponsored by the NYSBA and ALM that offered free assistance to lawyers about purchasing new systems, leasing temporary systems, recovering data from damaged machines, and anything else lawyers asked about. They helped locate temporary office space and equipment loaners, installed old programs on new computers, and generally fulfilled any reasonable request. This was truly our profession at its finest.
Christina Kallas practices with an emphasis on preventive law in the areas of contracts, real estate, business, estate and family planning, and ADR (both mediation and arbitration), in New York City. She can be reached at CKallas@juno.com.