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October 01, 2017

Handling Harvey: How Our Midsize Law Firm Prepared for the Hurricane

William B. “Ben” Westcott

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, flooding and the occasional tornado, and neither are the businesses who work within the region.  With each storm we face, we learn a little more about what we can do to prepare.  This article describes some of the steps our firm has implemented over the years to cope with the impacts.

In September 2008, when Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on Houston, our office building was left without power for several weeks and we were forced to work from our homes.   We were a much smaller firm then, and while we lost several days of billable time, during our hiatus we were able to meet and formulate an emergency preparedness plan for the next disaster we knew we’d be facing.

Our shareholders structured a multi-year strategic plan which covered technology as one of the key points for growth and disaster preparedness.  Out of this plan, came the following technology upgrades we implemented over a span of several years:

  • Cloud-based document management system that we could access from anywhere.  For document management, the firm utilizes a SaaS based solution platform.  This allows for employees to access our entire document management system from a web browser via any internet connection, in or out of the office.  Access is via both desktop and mobile device.  The platform that we selected has been excellent when it comes to security, compliance, record recovery, collaboration and email management.
  • Cloud-based LMS accounting and time management system.  As with our document management system, we knew that deploying our accounting and time management functionality to a private, secure cloud was attractive not only for business continuity, but for remote access as well.  We selected a LMS solutions company with Class A data centers around the world, an easy browser interface from any device and a high level of encryption protection. 
  • Cloud-based email platform.  We moved our email to a hosted Microsoft Exchange based email platform, so that firm employees who would normally access email via Microsoft Outlook, could also access their full mailbox using a web URL during the event of a disaster or times when Outlook was unavailable.  This was a seamless transition for us, and one that was incredibly important for business continuity.
  • Offsite servers in several locations.  Our firm now hosts our server infrastructure with a cloud-based provider with secure, Class A data centers located across three different office spaces.  Each location replicates the server content so that we’ll always have full site redundancy to account for a complete power loss like the one we experienced in 2008.  In the event a disaster impacts one of our offices, everyone can still remotely connect via a secure VPN connection and access all of our drives.
  • VoIP phone system for portability.  Once of the biggest changes we made was switching our phones to a hosted Voice over IP phone system.  Our phones are configured to work from any internet connection now, and in the event the office is inaccessible, the phones can be unplugged and taken home for regular usage.  In cases where homes might be experiencing an internet outage as well, there are soft phone applications which can be installed on mobile devices, functioning the same as the physical phone would. 

Then Harvey came.  We didn’t know exactly what to anticipate with this hurricane, but we knew it would be bad.  In addition to the steps we had already taken to mitigate our business disruptions, we wanted to make sure that we could reach our employees and make sure everyone was safe and secure.  Those secondary meetings resulted in:

  • Private website page for internal communications.  We created a private webpage accessible only to employees in our Houston and Austin offices.  This page was used to disseminate news on the office openings, closings, weather updates, road closures, flood district warnings, IT support contacts, FEMA resource guides and regional resources for shelters, water distribution and disaster support.  
  • Text Messaging System.  Prior to the office closing in anticipation of Harvey, we distributed an app for every employee to download to their cell phones so that the group could easily communicate where they were, if they were safe, or if they needed help.  Redundancies in content from the private webpage was also shared via text. This app served us well, as we did have employees who suffered flooding in their homes and we were able to quickly organize assistance. 

In the span of less than a week, Houston received anywhere from 41-62 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey, devastating parts of the city with massive flooding.  While our offices were closed for a few days, we were very fortunate that our particular areas in Houston and Austin weren’t impacted and we lost very minimal time due to our previous technology upgrades. 

Post-Harvey, we are reconvening and further fine-tuning our emergency preparedness plans for the next storm, which we already know is coming.

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William B. “Ben” Westcott

Andrews Myers, PC, Houston, TX, Division 9 (Subcontractors & Suppliers)