As I am writing this column, mass fear of the coronavirus has swept the world and our nation. Major events are being canceled, the stock market is plummeting, and government leaders are trying to decide how to react to the unique circumstances of this particular crisis. At the local level, judges are brainstorming to determine how to proceed with the regular functioning of the courts, and attorneys and their clients are nervous about the uncertainty of it all.
Much of the angst that exists is due to not knowing what’s going to happen. Lack of planning for times of crisis will cause much fear in you and those around you. I suggest that now is better than never to make a plan for times of crisis and get ready when that plan needs to be executed. Here in Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, the local and state bar associations discussed crisis planning and taught continuing legal education courses on crisis planning. Although a flood may be different than a plague, the value of planning is obvious in all crises. There is not enough room in this column to cover crisis planning extensively, but I will offer some highlights.
Planning Is a Team Effort
It is unreasonable to believe that one person can think of all the contingencies that may arise during a crisis, so you must ensure that planning for crises is a team effort. Given that many of you are solo or small firm attorneys, please understand the team doesn’t need to be limited to members of your law firm. In fact, the best teams bring together a wide variety of experiences for input. You’d be amazed at what others can contribute to the planning process because of their experiences. You must remember that although your firm has certain legal and ethical obligations that others may not, a crisis is an equal opportunity destroyer of property, hopes, and dreams. Thus, I encourage you to cast a wide net for input into what should go into your crisis plan.
The team effort is not limited to the direct knowledge of the team members. Encourage the planning team to help you with their own research. Everyone has different access to different resources. An attorney might have access to the resources of the American Bar Association and local and state bar associations, but an emergency first responder will have access to something completely different. Medical personnel, government workers, auto mechanics, construction workers, home health care workers, and myriad others will all have unique insights and access to resources in their chosen endeavors. Not only can the team members give you invaluable help in preparing your plan, but in many cases, the extra resources they bring to the table can be kept as additional support and reading material when specific issues arise.
The Crisis Plan Should Be Extensive
During times of crisis, our minds are highly stressed and on overload. The last thing we need to do is try to figure out from scratch how to deal with something new caused by the crisis itself. Therefore, you would be wise to make your plan as extensive as possible to address as many contingencies as possible. Something will undoubtedly come up that is not addressed in the crisis plan, but the goal is to minimize the number of those particular situations in advance. The less you (as your firm’s leader and your clients’ attorney) have to deal with novel issues during the middle of the crisis, the more you can focus on execution of the plan rather than development of the plan during the crisis.
An extensive plan should cover not only your clients’ files and firm’s personal and real property but also your personnel and their needs for security and safety in their own lives and for their families. The crisis plan should be wide and deep. While you can have a summary of the top things one should know at the outset of the plan, the plan itself should go into detail so that the person reading and following the plan is merely following instructions rather than making decisions. Trust me: You, your clients, and your staff will appreciate this when the time comes.
The Crisis Plan Should Be Tested
The middle of a crisis should not be when you learn that a part of the plan doesn’t work. Although things happen that lead to so many different variables, there is a way to minimize surprises. Testing some or all of a plan periodically helps keep the plan current and in good working order.
My personal recommendation is to test bits of the plan at a time before working your way up to a full-scale test. For example, if the plan requires people working from home but still maintaining their productivity, then you should test different workers’ ability to work from home occasionally. Once your team starts working from home from time to time, you will see where the flaws in the system are. If your plan requires backup computers to be given to your personnel, then those computers should be tested and updated every so often to ensure they are in good working order when needed. A crisis is not the time to learn that the equipment you had ready for the crisis is faulty or doesn’t work. Everything from medical supplies to generators to batteries to computers and phones should all be regularly tested and updated to ensure they are ready when a crisis strikes.
Done Is Better Than Perfect
Because of the demands on our profession, we often feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing anything that isn’t directly related to client work. How many attorneys do you know who are so busy with client work that they don’t have time to market their firm, manage their personnel, or plan for their future? I would venture to say that 99 percent of all law practices in the United States don’t have a disaster plan. Just the thought of adding another to-do on our plate makes us unhappy. I’m here to tell you that your disaster plan can be a work in progress. Furthermore, a plan that is done but continually evolving is better than a perfect plan left undone. You have my permission to start a plan and keep working at it rather than trying to come up with every single scenario.
What’s even better is not starting from scratch. The State Bar of Texas has an online library of all its CLE papers presented for several years. Just going online and entering “disaster planning” in the search bar of that online library yields a great number of articles with ideas and templates for various parts of a plan. The American Bar Association has its own resources available to its members as well. Disaster planning doesn’t need to be an overwhelming project. Take someone else’s work and begin from there.
Be a Leader During Times of Crisis
We attorneys are automatically assumed to be community leaders simply because of our profession. As business owners, we are assumed to be the leaders of our team. As attorneys for our clients, we are assumed to be able to guide our clients during times of crisis. As leaders, then, we should prepare ourselves to lead during times of crisis. Our mental, emotional, and physical health should be ready to endure stressful times, such as those brought about by crisis. Being the best versions of ourselves at all times will allow us to be ready when the world around us seems to be falling apart. Not only will we be able to guide our firm, our staff, and our clients, but we’ll be prepared to lead our communities and help support those in need. I encourage you not to shrink into your own world during times of crisis, but to rise above the chaos and be someone that others can depend on because you have prepared yourself and your team for crisis and thus have extra bandwidth in your life to help others.