“I never expected my office and my home to be hit by an F-5 tornado—both on the same day.” It was three days after the worst natural disaster ever to hit when a lawyer made this statement, which has clear lessons for us all.
The heart wrenching words were said to me by a newly minted lawyer in my home state, dazed and still trying to make sense of what had happened to his seven-month-old practice, and his life. It brought home, in a very profound way, why it is so critical for lawyers to prepare a disaster plan—and to take the steps necessary to be ready to execute it.
Unfortunately, too few lawyers have such plans in place. Perhaps it’s because most already have more to accomplish in a given day than seems humanly possible. Clients are counting on us to think and act wisely for them, after all, from the minute we arrive at the office until the minute we go home at night. And it is simply incomprehensible, until we’ve experienced it ourselves—or know someone who has—that one minute we can be going about our usual business and the next our entire lives can be upended. No office, no computers, no car, no change of clothes, no home. No one ever really believes it will happen to them.
But lawyers, unlike any other occupation, have a professional obligation not to allow their personal problems to conflict with their clients’ best interests—and that includes taking reasonable precautions to ensure that a natural or other disaster will not put their clients at a disadvantage relative to other similarly affected clients in the community. In other words, you owe your clients a duty to be prepared for the unexpected.
Prepare While It’s a Cloud-Free Day
Thankfully, disaster planning isn’t unduly difficult or time-consuming. It’s primarily a matter of taking the time to assess the potential business disruptions your practice could face and making sure that you have appropriate response steps laid out in advance. So, if you recognize the need to make sure that you are prepared in the event of a disaster, here are key steps to get you started on your planning.
Examine your risk scenarios.
Law offices in different geographic regions are subject to different risks, but some things are universal. Various weather events, such as severe storms, tornadoes, floods or wildfires, can suddenly make an office inaccessible or destroy it. Man-made mishaps or infrastructure failures, such as water main breaks, widespread power outages or industrial accidents, can also cause calamity. Firms that serve volatile litigants or handle controversial matters may be the objects of vandalism. And, even though it’s particularly difficult to contemplate, acts of terrorism remain a possibility.
You may not be able to assess every aspect of every possible scenario, but you can aim to identify the range of potential problems that your firm may face, including the harm or loss that might be suffered as a result. From there, you can plan appropriate actions to take in response.
Make personnel safety number one.
Anyone who has survived a natural or man-made disaster knows that if your people are safe, you can rebuild or recover from any other loss. The most important aspect of any disaster preparation plan, therefore, looks first to protect the firm’s personnel. A proper disaster plan covers exactly what employees are to do in the event of particular types of emergencies. Just as important, all members of the firm should periodically practice the steps involved to determine whether changes in circumstances require changes in the plan or present previously unrecognized perils.
Secure your mission-critical assets.
Next, your thoughts must turn to securing all the vital information that constitutes your stock in trade. In other words, you want to make sure that your valuable client and financial information is stored confidentially and in such a way that it can easily be retrieved and accessed following a disaster. Try to digitize as much of this information as possible, and ensure that it’s backed up regularly and a copy of the backup is maintained off-site. For remaining paper files, determine how you can best secure them from harm starting today. Arrange special storage, such as fireproof file cabinets or a bank vault, for exhibits and other evidence that cannot be replaced and on which a case may hinge, and work with copies or replicas to the extent possible before retrieving originals for trial.
Don’t forget that billed fees and work-in-progress should be digitized and backed up, too, since they are the fuel in the pipeline that will power your firm through a disaster. Also remember that you need backup strategies against two different types of risk: one in case of equipment failure or theft, and another in the event of catastrophic loss or the inability to reach and use your office.
Be ready to reconstitute your practice.
A good disaster plan involves laying all the groundwork for getting back into operation as quickly as possible. For this reason, in addition to copies of client data and financial files, you should always maintain an up-to-date inventory of physical assets and software. This will facilitate a quicker insurance settlement. Business interruption insurance is also a good idea. Policies of this type are often very affordable and can be a financial lifesaver in disasters that also affect your client base, leaving those who owe you money unable to pay until they get back on their feet, too. And, of course, making sure you have money in the bank set aside for a potential disaster, or a line of credit for this purpose, will allow you to quickly lease new space, purchase new equipment, and get operations up and running again.
The U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that over 40 percent of businesses never reopen following a major disaster. Of the ones that do, around 25 percent will, nevertheless, fail within two years, frequently owing to a lack of proper planning. If you hope for the best but plan for the worst, you can be ready for whatever comes and continue to provide the highest possible level of service for your clients.