General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide


Great Disasters and How to Avoid Them

By Robert A. Woodke

This spring the raging Red River combined with a fire to accomplish the destruction of 21 law firms’ physical plants in the neighboring communities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. This reminded me of a Thanksgiving day disaster in which fire destroyed an office building housing, amongst other tenants, a major Minneapolis law firm.

While you cannot predict or avoid a fire or flood, you can utilize technology to lessen the impact on your law firm’s economic life. Unfortunately, even every day use of technology can expose your law firm to a number of lesser disasters. However, with proper planning, you can take steps to prevent or minimize the damage they create. This article will discuss some of the problems posed by disasters, large and small, and describe practical steps to protect yourself from their consequences.

There is nothing like the feeling you get when you sit down at your computer, turn it on, and it fails to boot up. The hardest lesson any lawyer can learn is that hard disks, even new ones, can and do fail. It is a given that every mechanical device created by man will at some point in time, fail. But a hard disk failure does not have to spell disaster. There are a variety of effective backup programs available. If good procedures are in place and are followed, and appropriate backup hardware is installed, disaster can be avoided. There are many backup options.

Hard Drive Backup Options

One option is to utilize floppy disks to store your backups. While this solution offers the advantage of low-cost media and almost universal availability, there are some traps of which you should be mindful. First, it is remarkably slow. Second, you run the risk of obsolescence. Remember when 5 1/4 floppies were the standard? Try to buy a computer with that size drive as standard equipment today. The 3 1/2 disks also seem to be phasing out as more and more software becomes available on CD-ROM.

Disaster Survival Dos

Do develop a disaster plan

Do use a reliable hard drive backup system

Do purchase surge protectors for your office equipment

Do protect your computer system(s) with antivirus software

Do install a quality diagnostic utilities program to detect and repair computer problems

Do choose an adequate file storage method

Do buy a reliable and travel-ready encryption software product to restrict access to your computer system(s) and information

The ZIP Drive has become quite popular as a storage option and offers a reasonable backup media and hardware solution. Mail order prices of the ZIP Drive are currently in the $100 range. Competitor SyQuest offers a similar product called SyJet, a 1.5 GB data storage product, at a comparable price. It does offer the advantage of .5 Gigabytes of additional storage for the same price.

Yet another offering in this area is the Avatar Peripheral’s Shark 250, which is a small portable drive that weighs about a half pound and works through the parallel port. It does not use an independent power source, but connects to either the mouse port or the keyboard port. A problem with this solution is that it may cause a lag in the response times of your mouse or keyboard. This unit’s removable media holds 250MB and is a little bigger than a matchbook.

Unfortunately, none of these products are compatible with each other. In addition, the ZIP Drive, like the competitive SyQuest and Avatar products, has the disadvantage of being proprietary. This means that you must rely on the existence of that company and its commitment to ongoing support of the product as a basis for your backup.

There are a number of tape backup systems on the market that have been a proven media. The older tapes are giving way to the newer Travan drives which offer greater capacity. One concern here is that the older tape drives, again seem to be going the way of the 5 1/4 floppy. They do, however, offer the advantage of being a relatively inexpensive storage option.

Another method of avoiding a hard drive disaster is to install a second hard drive that mirrors the first. You can set this up to automatically duplicate the server hard drive which protects your software and data and permits almost immediate recovery for a hard drive failure. If you chose this option remember, it does not protect you from fire, flood, or other calamity.

Perhaps the best choice if you are looking for a firm-wide solution to backup and off-site storage, is a rewritable optical disk unit. Prices on this solution have dropped in the past year to make this a realistic and affordable solution. For example 2x writers can be purchased for about $400. One advantage of this solution is that it appears the media will be viable for the next four to five years.

One additional solution is storing your data online with a data storage company such as Datasafe. One advantage of this form of storage is that there is less likelihood that your stored data will be irretrievable due to obsolescence. Whether you choose a tape backup; backup to floppy disks; mirror your hard drive on a second hard drive; backup to a third-party data storage vendor; or use rewritable optical disks, the most important element is to have a duplicate of your data.

If, however, you suffer a failure and haven’t backed up your data, all is not lost. There are firms that can recover some or all of the contents of your failed hard drive. The degree of recovery often depends on the type of catastrophe that caused the failure, but in those circumstances, some recovery is better than no recovery.

Also, always check your backup to make sure the software and hardware are working correctly and actually transferring the data. One company in Minneapolis learned this lesson the hard way. They had faithfully performed the backup routine, but never checked to see if the data had been successfully transferred. Upon the occurrence of a failure they went to load the backup only to discover that the backup tapes were blank. Learn from their mistake and don’t let this happen to you!

Power Surge Protection

Disaster can also occur when your power goes out. This seems a relatively simple matter to avoid, but many firms still operate without uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) on their computers. In doing so, they risk the loss of the work they are doing when an unexpected power interruption occurs. A good UPS will give you adequate time to save your work and exit the system properly when a power outage occurs. It will also allow you to avoid the more insidious problems of brownouts and the damage they can do to a computer system. If you are unwilling to put in UPSs, the very least you should do is be sure that proper surge protectors are in place to protect from lightening strikes and power spikes which can be devastating to a computer system.

Surge protectors are also a necessity for other office equipment. Photocopiers, fax machines, telephone systems and the like can also suffer from power strikes. Recently, a thunderstorm caused three photocopiers in three different businesses in my community to fail. Luckily, I had a surge protector on my copier. While the lightening strike destroyed the surge protector’s ability to function, my copier was unaffected.

While on the topic of surge protectors, I should draw your attention to another little recognized fact: Surge protectors have a relatively short useful life and should be replaced periodically. Always check the manufacturer’s literature to determine how long the protector you’ve chosen will be guaranteed to function.

When selecting a surge protector do not cut corners to save a dollar. If your surge protector is inadequate to the task, you could end up with damaged equipment and have to go through a costly recovery procedure.

You should also have a second level of protection in your computer, namely a timed backup. In WordPerfect, you can set an automatic timed backup to occur in the interval of your choice. For example, a three minute backup will not unduly interfere with the program’s functionality and can ensure that you do not lose much work.

Frequently backing up your work will protect you from network lockups, IRQ interrupts and the like.

Virus Protection

New viruses are being created at an estimated rate of 200 per month. Thus, we are all at risk of virus infections invading our computer systems. Even high level safeguards do not assure us of immunity. One firm I know thought they were safe. They did not go online at all. They did not use shareware. They did not allow outsiders access to their systems. Yet one day their network was infected by a virus. Investigation by a computer consultant found that the infection came from an overly helpful staffperson who had taken a disk home to complete a rush task. Unbeknownst to the well-meaning secretary, her husband had imported from his workplace, an insidious virus which in turn infected the disk from the office. When she returned to work the next day and inserted the disk, it infected the entire office network.

Macro viruses are far and away the most common and have been known to infect many products, most notably Microsoft’s Word and Word 97. I am told the macro virus affecting Word 97 was introduced to the world on Microsoft’s Webpage early last February, shortly after Word 97 became available. Even though Word 97 has within it, safeguards that protect from most common viruses, this one was able to thwart the safeguards. The virus attaches itself to Word 97 documents and randomly moves words in infected documents and inserts the word “wazzu.” As soon as Microsoft became aware of it they removed it from the Webpage. Several anti-virus manufacturers are creating products to detect and delete the virus named W97M/Wazzu.A.

Antivirus software is proliferating, but not all software is equal. The big three seem to be Symantec’s Norton Antivirus, McAfee VirusScan, and Dr. Solomon’s Toolkit. They are followed closely by IBM’s Antivirus and Cheyenne’s AntiVirus. The Cheyenne product and Dr. Solomon’s appear to have the edge in providing strong solutions to detect and eradicate viruses.

In addition, there are some simple low-tech solutions you can apply to protect your systems from virus infection. Many boot sector viruses can be thwarted in a newer computer by changing the order in which it searches devices for bootable disks. By making the default value the c:\ drive (hard drive) first, this will foil a boot virus embedded in a floppy disk. Also, setup routines with this feature allow you to lock the configuration so only authorized personnel can change this setting.

In a network environment, using a standard set of document templates can make it difficult for macro viruses to spread. By setting the read-only attribute on program files and securing application directories against unauthorized users, you can limit the likelihood of infection.

One other step, might be to reward employees who report a possible viral infection and save disciplinary action for those who suppress information about a possible infection. The most likely source of viral infection for most offices is an employee’s home computer. Kids often bring disks home from school to do their homework. The school computers may have dozens of users and the likelihood is greatest of an infection transmitted through that medium.

Diagnostic Utilities Programs

Disaster Prevention Products At-a-Glance Product Vendor Hard Drive Backup ZIP Drive Iomega Corporation SyJet SyQuest Shark 250 Avatar Peripheral Virus Protection Software Norton Antivirus Symantec Corporation
1/800/971-1582 McAfee VirusScan McAfee Corporation
408/988-3832 Dr. Solomon’s Toolkit Dr. Solomon’s Software, Inc. IBM Antivirus IBM Corporation Cheyenne AntiVirus Cheyenne
1/800/243-9462 ext. 2 Diagnostic Utilities Programs Norton CrashGuard
PC Handyman Symantec Corporation
1/800/971-1582 Fix-It
WinProbe Quarterdeck Corporation
1/800/354-3222 Encryption Software Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) Pretty Good Privacy, Inc Stop Lock 95 PC Security Limited

No article on disaster avoidance would be complete without a discussion of some of the tools available to assist computer users in detecting and curing problems. Application errors continue to plague new operating systems. Symantec Corporation has, in Norton CrashGuard 2.01, provided users with a way to deal with application errors and operating system failures in both Windows 95 and Windows NT. With a price tag of only $19.95, no Windows user should be without it.

A companion product is Symantec’s PC Handyman, an addition to the Norton Utilities family. This software is designed to detect and wipe out device conflicts, viruses, and other problems that can crash your system, before any damage occurs. The software includes Norton CrashGuard and disk scanning tools from the Disk Doctor family.

Fix-It from Quarterdeck Corporation also detects and repairs a variety of computing problems and can improve your system’s performance. It monitors and protects your system from fatal errors and crashes. This is a good product, but the same company also produces WinProbe 95 which is a very useful desktop diagnostic and maintenance tool for Windows 95. It has an excellent Knowledge Base with a useful online tutorial for Windows 95. The diagnostic tools, coupled with the Knowledge Base make this a must have for Windows 95 users.

Whatever your software choices, a good antivirus program, and a good diagnostic utility will go a long way toward helping you to avoid great disasters in those areas.

File Storage Options

One of the most catastrophic disasters is the physical destruction of a lawyer’s office, and with it the client files, billing records, and financial data of the firm. A number of years ago, I checked into the feasibility of storing a duplicate set of client files with microfilm/microfiche, but the quotes were cost prohibitive. As a reasonable alternative, I opted for locked fire resistant files. However, fire files are an imperfect solution at best. They only protect the files locked inside and are an inadequate protection from tornadoes, floods, and disasters other than fires.

Modern technology does offer a cost-effective solution to this long-existing problem. Through the use of a scanner, client files can be transferred from hard copy to a storable record, either on a magnetic media or on an optical disk. Once the records are converted to a storage medium it is even possible to create a second set of records if desired.

The important thing to remember is to store at least one set in a different location not likely to be confronted with a common disaster.

One word of caution is appropriate. Be sure you choose a storage media that will be readable for the reasonable future. Also, as technology changes and you update your computer systems, be sure to update the stored records so you will be able to retrieve the information with your current hardware and operating system. I have personally experienced the transition from CPM-86 to DOS to Windows 3.x to Windows 95, as well as the change from 360kb 5 1/4 inch floppies to higher density 5 1/4 inch floppies to 3 1/2 inch floppies and now to CD-ROMs and rewritable optical drives. Certainly the future will hold additional transitions we may not yet be able to comprehend, but which will impact our data storage and retrieval capabilities.

Even though we are upgrading as technology changes, it seems prudent to be cautious about disposing of the “out-dated” technology. Technological and functional obsolescence are not the same thing. While WordPerfect 8 can produce much more elegant documents than WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, and Pentium Pro and MMX chips are much more responsive than 286 and 386 chips, the 286 machine with WP 5.1 can still produce an acceptable letter, pleading, contract, or other document in a pinch. In fact, I am writing this article at home on a 386 machine using WP 5.1 for DOS, because my laptop is in the shop for minor repair and upgrade.

You can retire the replaced technology to the lawyers’ homes, or, if they already possess home computers, perhaps to staff. Do this with the understanding that the machines remain the property of the firm and are subject to recall in the event catastrophe strikes. This will provide at least a reasonable level of productive capacity to bridge the gap until insurance proceeds are available to restore the destroyed equipment and software.

Remember, when disposing of out-dated technology, there are almost invariably a variety of confidential documents stored on the hard drive and simply reformatting does not necessarily render them irretrievable. If you are going to trade in your technology remember your ethical obligations to clients to protect their confidential matters.

It is imperative to have an archive copy of all software and operating systems stored in a secure, off-site location. If your software is located in the office and is destroyed, you will waste valuable time and money in obtaining replacement copies.

Encryption Programs

The last area where the potential exists for great disasters is in the area of hackers and sabotage. Whether the damage is created by an outsider accessing your system through the Internet, or by a disgruntled employee actively engaged in seeking to do harm, the result can be catastrophic.

This is an area where the safeguards are imperfect at best. However, some safety is vastly preferable to ignoring the potential threat.

There are software products available that allow you to restrict access to your systems and information through the use of passwords. These are effective in defining the amount of access firm employees and members can have to a computer program or system and in limiting access to data in accounting and other programs. Likewise, there are data encryption programs to secure e-mail, and firewalls to protect Websites from potential invaders. The now famous Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) product is a well-respected and readily available encryption program. (See the article on p. 36 of this issue for a full discussion on encryption.) There are a number of other choices out there as well.

One thing you should note: If you travel overseas and intend to take your laptop with you, be sure you have not loaded an encryption program that is not governmentally approved for export. At present, secured cryptographic tape programs are classified as “munitions” and taking them out of the country can land you in trouble with customs. Instead, buy a product from another country that is approved for import, thereby eliminating the customs issue. One such product is Stop Lock 95 developed by PC Security Limited, a British company. This encryption program offers a reasonable level of security and is readily available in the United States.


The suggestions offered in this article will not “bomb proof” your office, but they should allow your recovery from a disaster to be as quick and painless as possible. n

Robert A. Woodke is the managing partner in the Bemidji, MN office of Brouse, Woodke & Meyer P.L.L.P. He is a contributing author to the ABA publication, Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for Solo Lawyers , as well as the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Law Office Management Manual. He is Co-editor of Technology and Practice Guide .

Back to Top