LESSONS FROM KATRINA

By Ernest Svenson

In the movie Heat, Robert DeNiro is a professional criminal who lives by the credo “Do not allow anything into your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” I thought about that a lot after Hurricane Katrina forced me out of New Orleans. For six weeks I bounced from Kansas City to Houston to Baton Rouge, trying to resume my law practice. Fortunately, it was easier for me than for some others because I had something in common with the thief played by DeNiro: the art of the quick exit.

The moment disaster strikes is not, for most people, the time to start creating a checklist of action items. Emergencies usually mean you need to be able to leave an area quickly. Katrina didn’t sneak up on New Orleans. We had warnings and time to plan, and yet most people were still unprepared for what happened. As Katrina zeroed in, people evacuated but thought they’d be gone for only a few days at most. Because of the epic devastation that ensued, people weren’t allowed to return for several weeks at the earliest—and some neighborhoods are still deserted. The destruction suffered by parts of the city created its own set of problems and exposed weaknesses both large and small. Storing information on paper turned out to be a particularly weak link.

New Definitions of Safety

Many lawyers prefer to store client contact information in a paper notebook “because it’s safer” or because they still are not comfortable with electronic systems. In Houston I met an older lawyer who’d left his address book in his office and was understandably distraught. His office was fine, but because areas of New Orleans were closed for six weeks, he couldn’t retrieve his address book. Had his contact information been stored in his cell phone, he’d certainly have had it with him when he evacuated. Suddenly, his paper notebook didn’t seem like such a good idea.

Other lawyers lamented not taking their client files with them when they evacuated. At first blush that seems like a reasonable idea, but not if you think about the logistics of transporting files and key office equipment. In a moment of crisis, would you truly be prepared to make decisions about which files are most important? Taking all of your client files would be worthwhile, but have you prepared a way to do that? If you’re like most lawyers, a lot of files are still maintained on paper—but a lot of client information is also on desktop computers and in servers. And what about your phones and fax machines?

A box of paper that holds 2,000 sheets of paper weighs 20 pounds and takes up a fair amount of space. A desktop computer weighs several pounds, as does an external monitor. Oh, and if you bring a desktop computer, you’ll want your keyboard and mouse—they aren’t heavy but can become unwieldy to pack.

Time for a reality check: Paper files and desktop computers are not easy to move. Remember, when a crisis strikes, you and everyone else in the office should leave within 30 seconds—carrying all key information or not. Accomplishing this requires your commitment to change both your mind-set and your office’s basic work habits.

Be a Mobile Lawyer

I didn’t have a formal disaster plan for work materials, but apparently I had something just about as good: When Katrina struck, I did what I normally do when I travel—grabbed my laptop and my cell phone. My laptop weighs about six pounds but carries all my critical information on its hard drive. As a matter of course, all of my client files are scanned and stored on the laptop, so I don’t need paper copies. My client contact information is in my cell phone and synchronized with my computer. Cell phones didn’t work very well in New Orleans after Katrina struck, but text messaging did. And because I knew how to text message, I was able to contact friends and family. Later, I was able to send and receive e-mail from my cell phone (a Treo 650) outside of New Orleans.

My first priority once I evacuated to a new city was to connect to the Internet. My laptop has wireless connectivity to the Internet from anywhere that has WiFi hotspots—cafés, bookstores, even parks in some cities. This makes it fairly easy to check e-mail, send and receive faxes, and post information to my personal website. (Speaking of websites, in planning your disaster recovery strategy, be sure to consider the advantages of using web-based applications.)

I was still working for a law firm when Katrina struck, and the firm had a sophisticated e-mail system that we hosted ourselves, with IT people who managed it all. But as soon as the city lost power, the e-mail system went down. My personal e-mail account, on the other hand, was hosted by Google (gMail), so I was able to send and receive e-mail once I got to a city with working Internet access. The law firm’s fax machines did not function when the power went out, but my personal fax account is web-based ( eFax), and it worked fine during and after the evacuation.

Lessons for Solos

Six months after Katrina, I went out on my own, using the lessons learned in that disaster to set up my new solo practice. I use my gMail account as my main e-mail system and my web-based fax system to send and receive faxes, which show up in my e-mail in-box. I use my cell phone a lot, but I wanted an office phone as well and signed up for a VoIP phone system (two examples are Vonage and Packet8) that allows me to make unlimited local and nationwide long-distance calls using my Internet connection—for $20 per month. You can configure the VoIP module and handset to ring simultaneously at more than one phone (in my case, my cell), so you don’t have to worry about missing calls when you’re out of the office.

I recently traveled to Panama, where my cell phone would not work. But I also took my VoIP module and handset to make and receive calls back to the United States. Clients who called my New Orleans number had no idea I was in a foreign country when I answered. Had I been in my solo practice when Katrina hit, I would have taken my VoIP gear with me to the new location and plugged it into a router that connected to the Internet service provider in my brother’s house, and it would have worked without a hitch. Even if I’d left it in my office, as long as it was coded to also ring my cell phone, I’d have been able to receive calls placed to the office number. Many lawyers spent weeks after the floods trying to get their traditional phone systems up and running.

Another area that caused major problems for my law firm after Katrina was getting our billing system to work again. Because the system was run from servers located in the New Orleans office, our offices in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Houston also were unable to send out bills or enter time. The law firm finally hired a company to go into the city, remove the servers from the main office on the 40th floor, and set them up in another city. This task took almost two weeks and was nerve-wracking for all concerned—as well as costly.

When I decided to go solo, I opted to use a web-based billing system, primarily because I wanted to avoid ever having the same problems again. I experimented with Thompson’s Timesolv system (http://west.thomson.com/timesolv), found it to be simple and reliable, and have been using it for the past six months. I can enter my time from any of my three computers. All I need is Internet access, although a module for PCs allows you to enter time offline and upload it later. Sending out bills at the end of the month couldn’t be any easier: I simply check the list of clients I want to bill and decide whether to send the bills by regular mail, e-mail, or both.

Having my e-mail, phone, fax, and billing off-site and managed by vendors such as Google, E-fax, Vonage, and Thomson Elite gives me peace of mind because I don’t have to make backups or troubleshoot tech problems. I sometimes have problems connecting to the Internet—the city hasn’t fully recovered from last year’s nightmare—or other minor issues. Overall, my web-based systems are up and running about 98 percent, which is more than acceptable.

I was also fortunate that, long before Katrina was a tiny waterspout in the Eastern seas, I became interested in scanning paper files into electronic copies. Admittedly, the process of scanning can seem intimidating and requires a thoughtful, organized approach. Its benefits are so great, however, that you will soon wonder how you ever got along without it. The ability to quickly access information without having to rummage through boxes is reason enough to scan, but the portability and resilience of electronic documents make electronic conversion worth serious consideration.

Although I can’t go into the specifics here of how to set up a workable scanning system, I will point out that you need only a fast computer (it can be a laptop, although it’s better to use a desktop) and a quality scanner with an automatic document feeder. Fujitsu and Canon make affordable scanners that are reliable and easy to use. If you want more information about scanning, visit my website at www.pdfforlawyers.com. It lists lots of tips for scanning and managing digital files and includes comments from lawyers familiar with digital imagery.

No one likes the time it takes to back up digital data, but it’s not something that you should avoid. It’s a lot easier than you might imagine, and—more importantly—it’s critical. If you’ve never backed up the contact information on your cell phone, start there. Regardless of the type of phone you use, readily available programs make it easy to synchronize the information on your phone with your computer. Make this a weekly habit.

Next, buy an external hard drive to back up the key data on your main computer. A 100 GB USB 2.0 hard drive will cost you about $200 and will store plenty of information—and copy it quickly. Microsoft offers a free program called SyncToy that can easily do your backups. If you don’t maintain much data and can’t bring yourself to do proper backups, at least buy a small USB thumb drive. Keep it attached to your main computer and—this is the hard part—copy onto it whatever you’ve worked on that day (in the My Documents folder or wherever you store your primary daily work) before you log off.

There are many ways to prepare for disaster, but you have to start now. You owe proper planning to yourself and your clients; when a disaster hits, it will be too late.

Ernest Svenson practices business litigation in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he represents primarily franchisors. He has two well-known legal blogs: www.ernietheattorney.net and pdfforlawyers.com.

Copyright 2006

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