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Vol. 30, No. 6

Emergency planning: Voices of experience

by Annemarie Micklo

It’s been 164 days and a lifetime since Katrina hit,” Loretta Larsen ruefully joked during a panel discussion, “Earth, Wind, and Fire: After Disaster,” at the National Association of Bar Executives’ 2006 Midyear Meeting in Chicago. Larsen, executive director of the Louisiana State Bar Association, joined with executives from other bar associations in areas that had faced a disaster in recent years, to discuss how bars can plan for and cope with devastation.

Despite the somber topic, the speakers focused squarely on what each organization learned during and in the wake of mass disaster, and attendees left the session with six discrete lists of best practices to incorporate into recovery plans. In addition to Larsen, the panelists were: Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar; Barbara Berger Opotowsky, executive director of the New York City Bar; J.R. Phelps, director of the Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service; and Jim Calloway, director of the Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association. Harold L. Rubenstein, executive director of the New Jersey State Bar Association, served as moderator.

The following three points were mentioned by all the panelists as basic building blocks for recovery plans:

  • Get serious about backing up computer files. Engage a professional if you have any doubts about the system you currently use.
  • Arrange for both backups and operating systems to be stored, both off-site and off-line.
  • If you experience a disaster, the place to start recovery (after ensuring everyone is OK) is online. Be sure your Web site also carries live links to as many other resources as possible.

One reassuring note of experience emerged as each panelist presented, in turn, a brief synopsis of the disaster and a longer explanation of the lessons the bar had reaped: Everywhere, the members found, tragedy truly brought out the very best that people have to offer.

Steps toward recovery

Headquartered in New Orleans, the Louisiana bar estimates that more than half of its members were directly affected by Hurricane Katrina, and Larsen noted that the association itself took some hits, losing an estimated 1,000 lawyers who have left the state, and more than one-third of its staff—including eight office workers who simply never returned to work. Here are the steps the bar took, which Larsen suggested as a program for recovery:

  • Established a temporary office.
  • Located staff to assess both their safety and ability to report for work.
  • Retrieved servers, equipment, and files.
  • Established an online communications center for lawyers, courts, and clients.
  • Created an online displacement database, including a link for displaced lawyers to indicate their location and contact information.
  • Developed and posted an interactive bulletin board.
  • Established a legal assistance telephone hotline as soon as possible.
  • Created and managed a disaster relief fund—in part as an aid for the many people who wanted to help and had no other outlet.

Do something

Larry Houchins opened his portion of the panel discussion by describing the 35-foot storm surge that swamped many of Mississippi’s most populated areas. In addition to seconding all of the measures the Louisiana bar recommended in light of its experience with Katrina, he reminded attendees that several disaster plans may be necessary to cover different types of emergencies. Regardless of the type of emergency, however, Houchins stressed these basic steps: | Do something—don’t get trapped in your own procedures if they’re not working. | Establish communications by whatever means possible—use reports from those closer to the scene who may describe what they’ve seen or heard. | Get Web sites and working links to various other organizations up ASAP. | Don’t lose sight of humor. In the midst of a crisis, laughing to keep from crying may be the most healing thing you do.

Coordinate efforts

What the New York City Bar experienced most after the September 11 attacks, Barbara Berger Opotowsky revealed, was lawyers’ desperate, almost overwhelming need to be of help in some way. “We had lawyers pulling strings to get into the pro bono training sessions we put together,” she said. The huge base of volunteers and the demand for bar services, in fact, helped the staff spotlight existing laws and policies that needed changing (for example, the process for granting a death certificate without a body was shortened from three years to 10 days).

The question of how to deliver services loomed much larger than how to develop those services—particularly when the same people needed multiple services. The bar quickly appointed a new position to the recovery team, a facilitator who could prioritize the worst cases yet still direct those with less complex needs to a ready source of help and information.

One of the bar’s first technological achievements was establishing a substantive online information base and an interactive component. This quickly evolved into a legal referral service administered by the staff. Opotowsky stressed the need for the bar staff to take advantage of existing help, as well. “Don’t go off on your own,” she advised. “Collaborate with the entire legal community.”

Her final lesson: Remember that you and your working colleagues were also part of the disaster—don’t minimize the traumatic psychological toll on everyone, yourself included, and take its temperature periodically.

Learn to use tech tools

Every bar association and law firm should have a disaster response plan that covers, at minimum, the following areas, said the Florida Bar’s J.R. Phelps:

  • Set up a strong communications plan.
  • Because landline phones may be affected early on in a disaster, Phelps said to stress contact via cell phones (include them in your contact database for all lawyers and staff). Also, he advised, take a lesson from any teenagers you may know—be sure everyone knows how to use text messaging. Why? Text messaging systems may survive tower failure or come back online before voice lines. And keep an old wall-connected phone around—it may look funky, but analog phones often work when battery-powered, rechargeable models do not.
  • Set up an arrangement with an out-of-state entity (another firm, your brother Joe) to be the initial contact for staff to report their locations/status/availability.
  • Establish help lists. Sample categories include contact information for lawyers who have a specific need, sources that have things to offer, messages you may be able to relay, etc.
  • “Walkie-talkies work,” Phelps noted; have some on hand in case of emergency.
  • Have a prearranged place where people are likely to go in the event evacuation is necessary.

Phelps, whose bar has much hard-won experience in coping with hurricanes, had one more suggestion, one that was considerably lower tech than some of the others. The character in The Graduate who put great faith in plastics was right, Phelps joked: “Plastic works—seal as many things as you can in baggies of every size.”

The Oklahoma Bar Association’s Jim Calloway made the point that even though technology has given lawyers greater autonomy than ever in choosing when and where they work, disasters, such as the bombing in Oklahoma City 11 years ago, reveal how interdependent we still are. You may have a plan that covers every aspect mentioned in this article—but what if ATMs are down and you need cash for essentials?

In addition, try to ensure that at least one staff person stays current with new technologies—did you know you can get wireless access for your laptop through your cell phone?—and update digital gadgets as soon as it’s economically feasible to do so.

Interestingly, Calloway believes that we’re at the point where paper files are more vulnerable than digital, and that paperless offices are easier to protect. If you can sell your members on this point, you will also be able to offer them a bunch of new member benefits. Two that Calloway mentioned specifically: Provide backup services, on a monthly/weekly basis, which would be helpful particularly to solos and small firms; and review basic malpractice requirements regarding documents (e.g., is paper required?) to see whether lobbying for change makes sense.

Make connections now

Offering one final category of advice from his bar’s experience following September 11, moderator Harold Rubenstein strongly suggested that bars reach out to government agencies and helping organizations before disaster strikes. Remember that FEMA is not the only source of help—make contact with Red Cross and United Way representatives, and with Catholic Charities and other, similar nongovernment organizations, he advised.

Get the credentialing process out of the way now for any services you may offer or receive, he said. Also, start reviewing existing laws and regulations—practice-specific and otherwise—that have proved problematic in other locations. “This is where bars are essential,” he said, “because the membership already has the knowledge and expertise that the governing bodies may not.”

Establish an official protocol for working with the attorney general’s office, and be sure the bar is listed on all aid materials as an official contact, Rubenstein advised. Finally, he said, put in place agreements to work with other firms or offices in other cities and states if circumstances warrant.

Laughter heals

Sadly, more than just a few bar associations have had to build their coping mechanisms the hard way, day by shocking day. Try to incorporate these and similar suggestions into your existing plans, and stay open to other strategies, the speakers advised.

Like Houchins, other speakers emphasized that it’s OK—and necessary—to laugh once in a while. Phelps suggested a bright side to keep in mind if your efforts to retrieve documents are unsuccessful. “If all else fails,” he joked, “at least you got rid of all that useless paperwork.”

And even Hurricane Katrina didn’t entirely dampen Larsen’s sense of humor. She brought with her a photo she had snapped of a quick-witted entrepreneur in the French Quarter, whose newly printed T-shirts read, “I looted New Orleans and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”