Volume 19, Number 4
June 2002


Computer Crisis Management

By Bruce L. Dorner & David L. Masters

Like clients, computers can do weird things. And, like clients, they can elicit not only great joy but also panic and grief. They freeze and forget when you least expect it-much like the well-instructed client on the witness stand. They refuse to follow your instructions-much like the client who finishes three of five assigned tasks and wonders why there are still problems. And it goes without saying that computers and clients commit these deleterious acts only at the most critical times.
An unwritten law of technology holds that the more important the project, the more likely the computer will impede your progress. In light of this controlling authority, here are a few things to calm the computer-abused soul when bad things happen to good attorneys.

Fade to Black
The darkest hour is just before dawn-or when your monitor goes dark. The reassuring chatter and flickering light of the hard disk vanish. The quiet hum of the cooling fan ceases. Alert to your surroundings, you realize that the room lights have gone off as well: Eureka-a power failure!
Rule No. 1:
Always have an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) between your computer and the wall outlet. The UPS contains a battery and voltage regulator that automatically supply power if the juice goes off or drops below acceptable levels. Depending on the size of the battery in the UPS, it will generally power your equipment for ten to 30 minutes.
Be sure your UPS has enough capacity to run your computer, monitor, and all connected peripheral devices. Most of the UPS boxes provide ratings indicating how long the battery will last for different configurations. The more battery power you have, the more time you have to save all the open files and shut down safely. Some of these systems have software that will automatically close all the applications on your computer and then turn it off. Better UPS systems include surge and spike suppression to protect your computer in the event of a power surge.
Other evil forces are at work as well. The electric company often has a little extra juice. When it targets your computer, the damage can be quite impressive. Recall the cartoons with smoke billowing from the computer? This can be the result of too much voltage (power surges or spikes). Voltage sags can produce similar bad results. Electronic equipment requires steady current. Voltage fluctuations, up or down, are bad for components and can be prevented with a good UPS. While we're on the topic, don't forget that modem and network connections also need UPS and surge protection. Prices for UPS devices start at six dollars and go up from there, depending on battery size and other features.
Now, suppose your monitor has gone dark but the room lights are still on and you hear the hum of the cooling fan. Check the monitor power cord and connection to the computer. Check that the wall outlet has power (not with a paperclip!). All too often a power cord loosens after time or is knocked loose by the cleaning staff. Vacuum cleaners are a natural cause of dislodged plugs. If all this seems to be working (you still hear the hum of the cooling fan), there may be a loose connection inside the box.
If you're an under-the-hood type, disconnect the power cord from the wall, open the box, blow out the dust, and check the connections. The likely culprits are the connections between the hard disk and the motherboard. Give each of the peripheral cards a gentle push to be sure they are tightly seated. Obviously, be sure you touch a ground before monkeying around inside the box. The static electricity pent up in your body can do quite a bit of damage to delicate electronic components.
Startup error messages often cause heartburn, just like the new client who didn't think it was important to tell you that the case is set for trial in three days. The problems giving rise to the two most common startup error messages, "non-system disk" and "NTLDR not found," can be easily fixed. First, don't panic. Just remove the disk in the floppy drive, press any key, and keep going. Your computer looked to the A drive for the system files during the startup process. The system files are probably on the C (hard disk) drive. Here's a little tip for those who crave speed: You can alter the BIOS settings and tell the computer to proceed directly to the C drive without going to the A drive first. This will help your computer boot faster, but, if the C drive takes a vacation, you'll have to change the BIOS settings in order to boot from a floppy startup disk. Check the setup program for your particular computer for further instructions.
Another startup error message, "operating system not found," may be cause for greater concern. This crisis often can be defused by turning off the computer, waiting 15 seconds, and then restarting. Sometimes hitting the reset button isn't enough. To be really sure, turn the computer off, pour a cup of coffee, then restart. If the message persists and you don't have a disk in the A drive, you have a slightly bigger problem. Of course, you have a full backup of your computer on tape or another medium, so…Oh, you don't? At this point, find some candles, feathers, and chicken bones-you may need them shortly!
When the computer can't find the operating system, the problem usually is that the computer is looking in the wrong place for your system files or those files have been deleted, mangled, or otherwise trashed. Check the path to be sure the computer looks to the C drive for the system files by booting from a floppy startup disk (you have the floppy disk with the system files in your desk drawer, don't you?). Windows 2000 calls this the Emergencey Backup Disk (EBD). Keep the disk handy and update it periodically. Laptop users should keep one in their travel case. With the system disk, you should be able to boot the machine and prowl around a little. At this point, copy, back up, or otherwise move all the data to another machine or storage device for safety. You may not have another chance to save the Great American Brief you were drafting.
Another backup commercial: You can never be too rich, too thin, or in possession of too many backups of your data. Above all, be sure you keep at least one backup off premises and that everyone in the office knows how to use the backup device to restore data. We've both fielded calls from attorneys who have a backup but don't know how to restore the data. We've also both witnessed those truly ugly occasions when the backup was done but the tape or other storage media contained no data, corrupted data, or otherwise unreadable data. Test your system weekly to be sure the backup is working properly and data actually can be restored.
Another gem, provided by the nice folks at Microsoft, is affectionately called the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD for the techies). It appears as a full blue background on your screen with a cryptic message about something having gone wrong. The message usually contains combinations of letters and numbers that mean absolutely nothing to mere mortals. The only intelligible portion of the message says something like "press any key to continue." Pressing any key usually does nothing but make matters worse. On the off chance that pressing a key restores some degree of normalcy, immediately save all work and restart the computer. Now! Those with religious beliefs might offer up a prayer while the machine reboots.
A less serious message asserts that a program has committed an Illegal Operation. (Hey, I paid for a license to run this software!) The translation for this message is that two or more programs tried to do something at the same time that caused a backup in the electronic bowels of the computer. When you see this message, do everything possible to save all open files, shut the computer down, and restart. With Windows 9x systems, this error becomes more common as you try to run more programs at the same time. If it persists, you might try loading programs in a different order or checking to be sure all the programs have the most current versions and patches (don't leave open any of those old 16-bit applications, e.g., West Premise). If the errors persist, there may be a known conflict between two programs. Check with some of your techie friends to see if they've had the problem. Check the Internet for information from the vendors providing your software. These errors can be particularly difficult to cure, and Windows 9x users usually learn to live with them as regular occurrences.
Now we come to the wonderful Windows Frozen Screen Undocumented Feature (never call them bugs; they're merely "undocumented features"). The facts: You're working away with several programs open. You switch to another application. The mouse pointer moves, but nothing else happens. You click like crazy, but the machine ignores your commands. Frustration mounts as you continue clicking. (Our colleague Ross Kodner calls this malady "clickalepsy.")
Stop! Wait! Time to go for coffee-or to the corner pub. All that clicking simply may have confused the computer. Perhaps you asked it to do too many things at the same time, and the commands could not be finished in a sequential order (so much for multitasking). If the machine truly has locked up, utter your usual curse about losing your data, push the reset button, and get on with life.
The good news is that you can reduce the amount of data lost to the BSOD, illegal operations, and frozen screens. Both Word and WordPerfect have built-in, temporary backup systems for which you just change the settings to have the program create a backup of the open file every five minutes (or less). In the event of an illegal operation, you may lose only the last five minutes of work. Your mileage may vary with the BSOD or frozen screen.
These are just a few of the problems that keep us up nights-in addition to clients who don't follow instructions. We hope the suggestions in this article will help reduce at least some of your need for massive quantities of antacids.

Bruce L. Dorner is a solo practitioner with a primary office in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and remote offices wherever he finds a place to plug in his computer modem. David L. Masters is a solo practitioner in Montrose, Colorado, who takes his complete paperless office on a laptop computer wherever he goes.


Back to Top