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Smart Practices

Safeguarding the Firm: Disaster and Recovery Planning

Molly George

Because of prior planning, a coordinated response and teamwork with its client company, this Manhattan law firm was able to carry on its work after the unbelievable occurred. The firm’s experience is an extraordinary lesson for all practitioners.

 

Every law firm, regardless of its size, must plan for the possibility that an unexpected disaster might occur. How extensive should a firm’s disaster and recovery planning be? What elements are critical for a law practice to get on its feet in the event of a catastrophe?

Turner & Owen is an insurance defense staff law firm for Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company (FFIC). It had learned a lot from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which occurred directly across the street from the firm’s offices at One Liberty Plaza. In fact, the firm had developed a new matter management system with FFIC in response. But no one could have predicted the complete devastation of September 11, 2001.

Yet an around-the-clock effort enabled Turner & Owen to resume practice within two weeks, using data reconstructed from its matter management system. Then, Turner & Owen implemented further changes to its systems and practice management procedures to make them even more fail-safe. This firm’s experiences, the lessons it learned and the systems that it built provide invaluable guidance to all who want to safeguard their practices.

Building the Matter Management System

Turner & Owen’s managing attorney, Frank Turner, says, "Because of 1993, we were very much attuned to the threat of a disaster." As a consequence, FFIC and Turner & Owen embarked on developing systems and procedures to better protect their critical information.

FFIC developed a customized electronic matter management system, called Legalworks, for use by its staff counsel law firms. An FFIC information technology team built the Legalworks system on a Lotus Notes platform, with the flexibility to handle the volume and detail of the cases that FFIC referred to Turner & Owen. Importantly, FFIC integrated Legalworks with Turner & Owen’s existing applications, including Microsoft Word, Lotus Notes e-mail and the firm’s court calendar tracking system, CompuLaw Vision SQL.

Using Legalworks, litigators could then track cases by matter number—with each case file including the following:

• Parties
• Contacts
• The case calendar
• Timekeeping
• Correspondence
• Pleadings
• An evidentiary document database

Legalworks made it easier for support staff to enter and track data, create documents and produce reports for each case. In addition, Legalworks was designed to index the full-text of all documents.

The Legalworks data were stored on two local servers housed at Turner & Owen. Backup tapes were sent to the FFIC offices in the South World Trade Tower, on the 47th and 48th floors. FFIC then forwarded the backup tapes to its central claims repository site in Phoenix, where FFIC stores all its policy information. On September 11, the last backup sent to Phoenix went only through July 2001.

Successfully Evacuating the Offices

On the morning of September 11, Frank Turner was en route to an FFIC office in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. When the first plane hit the North Trade Center Tower at 8:48 a.m., everyone in the Turner & Owen offices heard an enormous explosion and their building shook. Founding attorney Ed Owen, remembering the 1993 bombing, immediately gathered the firm’s entire staff into one group and escorted them out of the building, seeing to it that everyone left accompanied by at least one other staff member.

At the time, three lawyers and nine support staff were in the office. Two of the lawyers hurried grab files, but the file cabinets and computer system had to be left behind. When the North Tower collapsed, it severely damaged the One Liberty Plaza building and buried everything in the office in thick dust and debris.

The first concern of Frank Turner, Ed Owen and FFIC was accounting for the safety of all staff members. FFIC immediately put together a disaster response team of more than 100 people that worked continuously on the recovery of Turner & Owen and the FFIC group in the South Tower. As top priority, they set up a "phone tree chain" to locate everyone.

As a result of well-organized, rehearsed evacuation procedures, all 125 FFIC staff members in the South Tower got out safely. By the next morning, the disaster team had confirmed the safety of all Turner & Owen employees.

Rebuilding Cases in Progress

Turner & Owen lawyers appear in state and federal courts located in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Frank Turner knew that he had to get the litigation practice, with its complex court schedule, up and running again as quickly as possible. "Once we knew everyone was safe," Turner says, "our next task was to start recovering and reconstructing data."

The backup tapes in the South Tower were lost, so Turner and Louis Kullesaid, a representative from FFIC, decided to attempt recovery of the file servers from the building at One Liberty Plaza.

On September 17, with a police escort, Turner and Kullesaid crawled on their hands and knees with flashlights, searching the office for any records that might help them reconstruct their cases. They found that the network servers, housed in a core area in the center of the building, were intact. They had the servers removed and shipped to California, so the FFIC IT disaster team could start pulling out case data.

The firm was fortunate that its offices were on the far side of One Liberty Plaza, away from the North Tower. Its offices were largely intact. It did not lose any file cabinets, and later a cleanup contractor was able to retrieve files and clear the offices of debris.

Setting Up an Interim Office

The FFIC disaster recovery team set to work immediately to locate interim office space for Turner & Owen. They found space in midtown Manhattan at the legal department of PIMCO, a subsidiary of Allianz, FFIC’s parent company.

Frank Poli, the general counsel of PIMCO, had 20 people on his staff. It took everyone’s generosity, patience and cooperation to accommodate the crowded office arrangement. It was not possible to double the existing phone system’s capacity, so FFIC supplied a cell phone and pager to every Turner & Owen lawyer.

By Tuesday, September 18, Turner & Owen had relocated to PIMCO. Also by that date, FFIC had supplied laptop computers to all the lawyers, creating portable workstations that they could use anywhere. Turner & Owen piggybacked on the PIMCO server to connect with California, and was thereby able to send and receive data with FFIC’s headquarters.

Rescheduling the Firm’s Cases

To resume practice, Turner & Owen first had to identify all files that required work during the ensuing month. The data in the Vision SQL court calendaring system on the recovered servers went back to August 19, 2001.

Using Vision, the FFIC technical team and Turner & Owen were able to re-create a list of courts with upcoming dates—and to deliver requests for continuance to the administrative judges in each jurisdiction. "Because of Vision," Turner points out, "we were able to notify the courts and get our dates reassigned quickly."

The courts in the New York boroughs other than Manhattan were running. For Brooklyn, Turner & Owen sent an application for continuance for every individual case. In Manhattan, the court pushed all cases into 2002. The State of New York instituted a new statute of limitations effective January 7, 2002. As the litigators began to receive new date assignments, Vision reformulated their court calendars.

Up and Running: New Attitudes in a New Environment

By September 24, Turner & Owen lawyers were working full-time from the interim office. The data from the two servers recovered from One Liberty Plaza were loaded onto the "terminal services" system at the FFIC home office in San Francisco. Through the PIMCO server and the FFIC server in California, the lawyers could log in through their laptops and have all case data at their fingertips. In addition, once the Vision program identified the active cases, Turner & Owen notified the cleanup contractor, who then pulled and shipped the appropriate paper files to them.

The Nokia cell phones and IBM ThinkPad T22 laptops that FFIC acquired for the lawyers created a new mobile working environment. However, successful implementation of the mobile offices depended on the lawyers’ attitudes toward integrating the technology into their work styles.

"The transition to laptops was slow,"says FFIC staff counsel training director Pam Jansz. "But by September 24, our staff was able to create some documents and get out work."

According to Frank Turner, back in the 1990s, "Some of us resisted the implementation of the Legalworks system. We were comfortable with our manual setup. After the disaster, we lawyers learned that our electronic system is critical. Now there is a lot more respect for the electronic system." Of another change, he adds, "Cell phones are now so important for communication, but they are also good psychologically. Lawyers who never used to carry one make a lot of calls now to make sure everything is okay."

In addition, when the backup tapes in the South Trade Tower were lost, both Turner & Owen and FFIC realized another critical fact: that any organization’s backups should be sent out and stored at a site completely removed from its office area. FFIC now regularly makes backup tapes in California and ships them to Arizona.

Structuring a Stronger Bond through Teamwork

Turner & Owen and FFIC know equally well that the firm’s rapid recovery took tremendous teamwork. They also know that coming through the disaster together has forged an even stronger bond between the two organizations. FFIC’s immediate response, its dedicated disaster recovery team and its sustained effort demonstrated the company’s enormous commitment to the people of Turner & Owen and their practices.

Turner & Owen moved back into its reconstructed offices at One Liberty Plaza the first week of March 2002. Among the many things that it learned in the preceding months is that every firm, regardless of its size, needs to have a disaster and recovery plan in place, including these core elements:

• A firm must make evacuation planning for staff the top priority.
• A firm must ensure that it can always reach members via pager or cell phone.
• A firm needs a mobile office system, so its lawyers can carry on practice no matter where they may be.
• A firm must back up its data with meticulous regularity and store the data in decentralized locations that are remote from firm servers.

Turner & Owen was able to get its practice up and running quickly after September 11 thanks to the determination of the lawyers, excellent automated matter management and court calendaring systems, and intensive human and technical support from FFIC. Dedication to their practice was, and continues to be, a driving force in pulling firm members through an unbelievable experience.

Molly George (mgeorge@legalvoice.com) is President of CounselVoice, Inc., in Eden Prairie, MN. Contact her at(612) 974-9573.

SIDEBAR 1 - A Snapshot of Turner & Owen’s Technical System After Sept. 2001

• FFIC Terminal Server Network using two Windows 2000 servers, with security provided by Windows 2000 Directory Services
• Legalworks matter management system based on a Lotus Notes database
• Microsoft Word word processing
• CompuLaw Vision SQL court calendaring software and databases
• IBM ThinkPad T22 laptops for all lawyers
• Nokia cell phones for all lawyers

SIDEBAR 2 - Disaster Planning Checklist

Mobility and Accessibility

• Does your firm provide each lawyer with a mobile office, supplying a laptop with a modem and a cell phone for each?
• Can the lawyers access their matter data and documents via the mobile office, anywhere and anytime?
• Does your firm train its lawyers on the mobile system?

Communication

• Do all your lawyers carry and use their cell phones or pagers? Can firm members contact each other from any location?
• Does your firm publish a list of cell phone numbers for the lawyers to carry?
• Can lawyers send and receive e-mail from their laptops?

Updates

• Do lawyers update their data on their laptops daily? If they cannot get to the office, can they continue working with data on their laptops?

Backups

• Does your firm back up data to tape or CD-ROM daily? Or, alternatively, does it transmit data electronically to a backup facility that loads the data onto a separate server?
• Does your firm store copies of its backup data offsite, at a location far removed from your offices?

For additional planning elements, read "Developing a Crisis Management Plan," from the ABA Law Practice Management Section MDP Resource Center, at www.abanet.org/lpm/mdparticle12186_frontshtml.