Disaster planning: Your law firm survival guide

A natural disaster occurs once a week in the United States, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Surviving the event is the first priority but afterward, ensuring your business is operational, can be an equally difficult task. At least one study from the U.S. Department of Labor found that most businesses do not have a disaster plan and are out of business within five years after experiencing a major disaster.

If a disaster struck your law firm, from an office fire to a hurricane, how long would it take you to be back in business and serving your clients?

Advance preparedness is the key to surviving a catastrophic event and keeping your firm up and running. In “Surviving a Disaster: People and Records, Protecting Your Most Vital Assets,” Amy Lynn Major and Megan Timmins, associate directors with the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, show how to prepare for disasters and speed up the recovery process.

Your staff is your most important organizational asset and any successful continuity plan will be dependent on them. The goals in a successful plan include:

Place the right people in the right positions: This is critical. You need to have the most important essential functions covered by the people with the necessary experience, background and authority.

Invest in training and development: This way, when an emergency hits, people can step right in to their new roles without losing time.

Capitalize on existing skills: Put people in positions that match their skills and with which they are most familiar.

Ensure all employees know their role in an emergency: It’s great to have a written plan, but you need to make sure people read it and know what to do if an emergency happens.

Emergency procedures for personnel

One of the most important parts of developing a personnel management plan is identifying the key positions. These may include leadership and management, but support staff positions that are essential to operations continuing should not be overlooked. Continuity plans need to focus on the position title and not the position holder so that the plan does not need revision when there are staff changes.

When identifying key positions, specialized knowledge or authorizations (e.g., signatory authority) need to be considered. For example, if there is not someone who can approve payroll, the business will suffer. After identifying the positions, it is necessary to gather and maintain information on them, who the appropriate successors are and whether any needed certifications and authorizations are in place. Human resources policy should make clear that employees may be called on to perform different jobs during a continuity plan.

Before the firm can start to recover from a disaster, the staff needs to survive the actual disaster. Occupant emergency procedures ensure the safety of personnel. This can include evacuation plans or shelter-in-place procedures and needs to include sufficient equipment such as fire alarms and PA systems, but also awareness of things like designated assembly areas during an evacuation.

These procedures need to account for employees with functional needs, such as a blind or deaf staffer, but also temporary functional needs such as a pregnant employee or one with mobility issues due to a recent surgery.

Preparedness kits

Dovetailing with occupant emergency procedures is the need for “go kits” to ensure continuity of operations. These include personal preparedness kits (needs for basic survival such as water, food, flashlights, etc.) and business go kits necessary for key personnel to carry out essential functions. These could include laptops, flash drives or vital forms and records.

If the event is a natural disaster, it means that the impact can be more widespread than just your business. If that is the case, you may need to account for your employees’ family needs and obligations as they cope with the disaster.

Succession plans and signatory authority

It is important for firms to have a clear succession plan in an emergency. These can take two forms. First, there can be an order of succession, in which an entire position is filled by a backup person. The second form is the delegations of authority for specific tasks.

Major and Timmins suggest that if your continuity plan has an order of succession, that each key position be three deep. They warn against the mistake of only arranging replacements for leadership positions and not for key support personnel. Advantages of an order of succession include the ability to prepare for planned departures, such as vacations, with a clear backup. It also reduces stress during an emergency since the new role is no surprise to the successor.

With the delegations of authority, the organization needs to be aware of tasks requiring legal or signatory authority. There also needs to be a clear plan for when the authority kicks in and for how long. Some authorities would only involve the immediate emergency situation, but others, such as hiring and firing authorities, would have lasting effects on the company. This limited authority concept could also be adopted in an order of succession plan.

Vital records

While your staff is the most important asset in your organization, the preservation of vital records during a disaster is also significant. Vital records, for continuity planning purposes, are records, systems and equipment that, if lost or damaged, would materially impair an organization’s ability to carry out essential functions or require considerable expense to replace or repair.

A vital records program should be part of any continuity plan and needs to be assigned to people and reviewed regularly. Every vital record should have a Recovery Point Objective, which is basically the age of the data your company needs to recover. If you have to reboot your computer system after an emergency, do you need to go back 10 minutes, 10 days or to the end of the last fiscal quarter?

Vital records also need to have a Recovery Time Objective, which spells out how quickly access to the record will be needed after an emergency.

There should be a proactive approach to securing vital records that includes more frequent backups of information, regular assessments and even having a record recovery expert on retainer. Having a “go kit” for vital records is also a possibility. This would include a list of contact information, a vital records inventory that includes location (either physical or digital) and passwords, codes and duplicate keys.

Bottom line

No company knows if an emergency will hit their organization, but all companies can plan for the possibility. The hours devoted and money spent developing a continuity plan will be more than offset by the hours saved after an emergency if your firm has a well-designed recovery plan. Firms also can use their continuity plan as a selling point to clients, letting them know that even if a disaster strikes, the firm will continue to operate and be able to address their needs. This can provide a significant competitive advantage.

There are resources for firms to develop a plan. The ABA has a free step-by-step guide on disaster plans, “Surviving a Disaster: A Guide to Disaster Planning for Bar Associations,” and other resources at the website for the Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. Additionally, FEMA offers a business continuity plan suite at the website ready.gov.

“Surviving a Disaster: People and Records, Protecting Your Most Vital Assets” is sponsored by the Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness, ABA Center for Professional Development and the Section of State and Local Government Law.

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