Down the Road After a Disaster
Down the road after a disaster is exactly where I found myself after a tornado hit downtown Forth Worth. March 28, 2000, was a day like any other at my solo practice in the Bank One Building. Shortly after 6 p.m. I went upstairs to meet a colleague in the top floor restaurant. In what would later be an ironic twist of fate, the early diners included a group of employees of the National Weather Service. Suddenly, without warning, the wind started to blow, the building began to shake, and a crowd rushed to the wall-high windows to see what was happening. I looked up and saw the chandelier above our table swinging. We were told to head for the stairway, but people panicked. There was screaming and crying, people pushing and falling over one another as the large crowd tried to rush down 35 flights. Then I heard glass breaking, and I knew these could be my final moments.
An F3 tornado had ripped through Fort Worth, killing five and injuring 100. By the time it passed, I’d made it down to the 23rd floor where my office was located – had been located. I opened the office door and saw computers knocked to the floor, damaged furniture, and documents flying out the open windows. In a split second, I was left with no material resources—nothing to refer to but my memory.
It was weeks before tenants were allowed back in the building, but I still had to attend hearings and trials, though I had no files. Some clients had given me original documents—these were now gone. Though the district clerk’s office copied all pleadings, it was impossible to recreate all of the lost papers. But the tornado taught me that life goes on—even after a disaster. I’d begun my practice with $1,000, some borrowed furniture, and a few referrals. I wasn’t about to let a tornado take away all I’d worked for.
Finding a new office was the first task and it proved an uphill battle. Some 85 percent of the building’s tenants were lawyers and we were all scrambling for space. Rents skyrocketed. Initially, tenants expected to move back into a renovated building, so I resisted signing a long-term lease. Yet I knew clients wanted a sense of stability during what was likely an unstable time in their own lives. With help from the legal community and friends, I found a temporary office and proved to my clients that I was here to stay. But I felt more “on the road” than “down the road.” A year later tenants learned they would not be moving back to the Bank One Building. Finally, I could make permanent decisions about how to reorganize my practice, my schedule, and work on obtaining new clients.
The tornado caused delays and financial hardship, but as a result I started doing things differently:
• I no longer maintain control of a client’s original documents.
• I back up all technological equipment and maintain a hard copy of documents.
• I recognize that property insurance is a necessity.
• I have an agreement with another lawyer to assist each other in the event of any catastrophe.
• I’ve learned to ask fellow lawyers for assistance when needed.
• I know it’s necessary to advertise a permanent location where clients can find you.
One minute in a day can change your life. But isn’t change what life is all about? That and not taking people, situations, and opportunities for granted.
Deborah Adame is chair of State Bar of Texas Grievance Panels, District 7A, and a solo practitioner in Fort Worth, Texas. Contact her at email@example.com.