Facing the Unexpected
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, I got a call from a reporter asking me what advice I could offer to lawyers whose offices had been destroyed in the World Trade Center. My response was that they should simply ask for help. I said that they should call the courts, call the opposing attorneys, call their clients and call their bar association. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. What’s more, I could not imagine anyone refusing their call for help. Even the most tenacious adversary would help them reconstruct their litigation files by providing copies of documents. Even the most harried court clerk would help them obtain copies of court records.
Sometimes events are so unexpected and devastating that we cannot possibly prepare for them. This was such an event. The scale of the devastation was so enormous that the regular rules don’t apply.
In other cases, disasters are much more private, but extract their own toll on those who suffer them. I know lawyers whose offices have been wiped out by flood and fire. I know others who have suffered heart attacks or strokes and have been unable to return to the office for long periods of time. A number have been disabled by a car wreck or other accident. Others have died unexpectedly. In each of those cases, there were devastating consequences, but they were isolated events known only to those involved.
While we all can, and should, prepare for the possibility that an event like that at the World Trade Center may happen again, the likelihood is that it will be a natural disaster, accident or health problem that will shut our practice down.
So how do we prepare? One way to start is to contemplate the worst case and ask yourself what would happen if you couldn’t come to work tomorrow or even phone in with instructions. A few minutes contemplating that possibility will lead to a list of ideas. What if it was one of your staff members who could not work? Are you prepared for that? Have a meeting with everyone in your firm to talk about the possibility that something might happen.
Another important step would be to call your bar association or visit the Section’s Web site at www.lawpractice.org. We have just begun a discussion group for disaster planning where you can share ideas online with other legal professionals. You can sign up on the site and join in.
It’s really like I told the reporter—you should simply ask for help. But you should ask for help before a tragedy strikes. There is a lot of assistance out there. Let’s hope that none of us needs it.
K. William Gibson
Chair, ABA Law Practice Management Section