General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide

Preventing Data Disasters with a Good Backup Plan


All businesses—including law firms—should back up their data. Not backing up the work that we produce is more of a threat to our practice than leaving our doors wide open at night when we leave the office. In truth, it would be easier to replace the contents of your office than all the data on your computer.

The most important aspect of any firm’s standard operating procedure should be the consistent backing up of files. According to Kerry Monroe, product manager at Hewlett Packard, in an article in PC Novice’s Computing Basics, only 10 percent of businesses back up their data.

Tape Capacity

Current backup systems are inexpensive, reliable, automatic, and easy to use. The first step in the backup process is to choose the equipment. All law firms, regardless of size of firm, should have a tape backup.

The capacity of the tape drive depends on the capacity of your hard drive. As a rule, you should buy the largest capacity tape drive that you can afford. Even if the new tape drive is much larger than what you need now, you will surely increase the capacity of your hard drive soon. Large capacity tape drives do not cost that much more than smaller ones.

If your tape drive holds less than your hard disk and you have to change tapes as they get full, you will be less inclined to back up regularly because of the inconvenience. In the overall scheme, it is much more cost-effective to spend an additional few hundred dollars to buy a large capacity backup than to have to recreate your work from scratch.

Most of the tape backup units use QIC (quarter inch cartridge) tapes, but many of the newer units use DAT (digital autotapes) that allow you to back up files faster and without intervention. Although these new units are more expensive, their price is dropping. Eventually, they will replace the QIC systems. Keep this information in mind if you are purchasing a new unit.

Make certain that your backup software is compatible with your backup hardware. This is especially important if you move to Windows 95 because not all programs that support Windows 3.1 support Windows 95. Various software solutions are available. You can purchase separate backup software or use the utility software that comes with your operating system or with your tape drive.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I did a search on the Internet. I used the Alta Vista search engine and searched for "tape backup." There were 10,000 matches. I looked at just a few and found that prices were very low, ranging from $99 for a 700 MB QIC internal drive to $299 for a 2 GIG 1/4" DAT drive. There were some that went as high as $2,000 for huge capacity machines, but many others were reasonably priced.

The most expensive hardware is useless unless you use it consistently. Simple backup procedures should be written into a procedure manual and distributed to all staff. The procedures must be adhered to religiously. One person should be assigned the responsibility of carrying out the procedures. In a solo or small firm setting, that person is likely to be an administrative person.

Backup Procedures

Current backup systems allow you the option of backing up all files or only selected files. If you are using a backup for the first time, you should back up your entire system including all of your operating system files, configuration files, system files for each application, and all data files.

Depending upon the amount of work done in your office and the capacity of your tape drive, it may not be necessary to do a full backup more than once a week. You could do an incremental backup that allows the software to back up only those files that were changed since the last backup. If you use a partial backup, this must be done daily. You should do a full backup of your data files weekly. Keep in mind that you should also do a full system backup each time that you add hardware or software or change your system’s configuration.

Although the cost of tapes is relatively high (anywhere from $8 to $50 per tape), you should not use the same tape for all backups. Ideally, you should have a tape for each day and rotate them. Although this will cost more initially, it will extend the life of your tapes.

One final word: The tapes must be taken off site each day. A backup tape will do you no good if it is destroyed in a fire at your office.

We all know that there are procedures for backing up files, updating programs, and deleting and purging files. However, few firms actually have written procedures for all of these tasks that are distributed, reviewed with staff, consistently followed, and regularly reviewed. Some of the tasks that should be included are backup procedures, procedures for copying and sharing files or disks, deleting files, and restoring data that may have been lost. Distribute a copy of these procedures to support staff.

Another measure that should be included in the written procedures is in regard to passwords. Take password security seriously. Employees should be told that under no circumstances are they to share their passwords with anyone else in the firm. Two people in the firm should have access to all passwords.

The Disaster Plan

There is no question that law firms of all sizes invest tremendous amounts of money and time in their computers and technology. Yet most firms, especially solo or small firms, do very little to truly safeguard this investment. Technology security means much more than merely physical security.

Threats to the security of your computers and/or the data on your computers can and will come from a variety of sources. Some common threats to the security of your data/computers are:

• Accidental erasure.

• Power failure or interruption.

• Intentional or unauthorized erasing of data.

• Hardware failures.

• Introduction of a virus.

• Natural disasters.

Firms must take steps necessary to prevent problems from occurring and plan for disaster. All firms, even solo practitioners, should create a disaster recovery plan. Some of the issues to address are:

• How would you restore your computing capability if your office was destroyed?

• If you had to replace your computers within a few days, do you know what you would buy? If not, is there someone or some company that you can call upon to assist you? How long could you actually continue to service your clients without your computers?

• Know all the information about and the extent of your coverage for your hardware. Two factors tend to dilute any coverage you may have on your equipment—the deductible and the method of arriving at a replacement value.

• You should have an accurate and up-to-date hardware inventory. An inventory should list every piece of hardware, where it is located, the serial number, the date of purchase, and the original cost. If this information is not available for some of your older hardware, make certain that this information is included in the future. It is also a good idea to include the dates of any repairs to or problems with a piece of hardware. This could help you determine whether it is cost effective to repair the equipment or whether you should replace it. You should also match hardware inventory to maintenance contracts. Make certain you are not paying for maintenance on equipment that has long since been discarded.

• Take a software inventory. Included in the inventory should be the license agreement, the number of users authorized to use the program and the maximum number of concurrent users. You should keep records to prove that all of the software loaded onto your PCs was purchased by the firm and all the software being used is in compliance with its license agreement.

• How will you pay for the replacement equipment? Will you need more capital than you will receive from the insurance?

• Where will you get the data to restore into your new system? This is obviously one of the most important aspects of the plan because your data is your most valuable product. n

Patricia A. Yevics is Law Office Management Administrator for the Maryland State Bar Association. She assists solo and small firm practitioners in all areas of law practice management, including technology, personnel, marketing, financial, and office management.

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