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What to Do When Your Practice Is Hit by a Disaster (and How to Jump-Start Your Recovery)

Shawn L Holahan


  • Create a simple disaster plan and place it in several safe locations in both electronic form and hard copy.
  • Your disaster plan should prioritize reestablishing communication and accessing your clients’ data.
  • The mindset that “recovery from a disaster is a marathon, not a sprint” is useful, especially while you are still in the middle of the recovery.
What to Do When Your Practice Is Hit by a Disaster (and How to Jump-Start Your Recovery)
John W Banagan via Getty Images

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Effective planning determines how fast you can recover from a disaster—or even whether your office will survive. And, as if the disaster du jour isn’t sufficiently anxiety-producing, keep in mind that during a disaster, natural or otherwise, a lawyer’s professional and ethical obligations are not suspended. So, it is incumbent on all of us to have a disaster plan in place before it hits the fan.

Fires, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes are easy examples of disasters. Other, slower moving disasters can exact their pound of flesh as well, such as an employee’s (or your) illness and disability or a newly discovered theft or burglary. Even more mundane events, such as an employee termination gone awry, a computer malfunction, sudden staff changes, or even a hot water heater leak, can also wreak havoc on a law office.

My best disaster plan advice? Create a simple disaster plan and place it in several safe locations, both electronic and old-fashion hard copy, before it happens. A simple plan with easy access will increase the chances that you and/or staff will implement it. You cannot anticipate everything in a disaster plan, but a simple one will prevent a lot of heartache and increase your chances of business survival by giving you a recovery head start.

The best simple disaster plan prioritizes these two challenges: reestablishing communication and access to your client’s data.

Disaster Plan Elements

So, it’s Tuesday, and you are bebopping along, practicing law, and dispensing justice where you can. Life is good, or even if not, you are handling the familiar manageable chaos. Then, “it” happens—maybe suddenly, or maybe with a few days’ notice. Either way, you weren’t anticipating “it,” and of course, “it” is happening at the most inconvenient time. Now what? Implement your disaster plan and get your feet back on the ground. But that assumes you have a disaster plan. If you don’t, it’s easy to create one right now.

Here are the elements of a good, simple disaster plan:

“No Tech” Critical Info Disaster Binder

Create a “no tech” disaster binder with critical contact information. Review it once a year. It will be your lifeline in a power outage and/or impaired access to electronic data.

Not convinced? Think about this situation: Your area just got hit with a massive power outage. You’re out of cellphone juice and need to borrow someone else’s phone. Just how many telephone numbers do you know off the top of your head?

A “no tech” disaster binder can come to the rescue. The binder contains hard copies (yes, hard copies) of these items:

  •  Family member contact information.
  • Staff contact information. Include alternative email addresses, personal and work cell numbers, emergency contact information, and a possible location where each may go if evacuating.
  • Current list of active clients and opposing counsel contact information.
  • State bar association contact information.
  • Directory file list of active files.
  • Trust accounts/other account numbers with banking contact information.
  • Business and malpractice insurance policies with agent contact information.
  • Photos and inventory of office equipment and furnishings. Consider following up with a video of your office environment and sending this video to the cloud.
  • Passwords. List in a non-obvious manner passwords to firm social media, website, cloud subscription, bank, and any other work-related Internet accounts.
  • Vendor and supplier contact information.
  • Other items. Additional cellphone charger (a solar cell charger).

Keep the binder in a secure place in your office, with a copy in a safe place away from your office. Give a copy of the binder to a responsible person (preferably someone who does not live in the same general area as you or your office).

Make electronic copies of the binder, and then

  • email it as an encrypted attachment to yourself and to someone whom you trust in an area away from you, and/or
  • copy to an encrypted flash/thumb drive that you can keep in your wallet, and/or
  • send to a secure cloud provider.

Identification of Possible Temporary Office Locations

Create a list of possible temporary office relocations in case a disaster requires a temporary move. Talk to colleagues nearby and in another part of your state about a standing reciprocal agreement that each could use the other’s office temporarily. Consider your home as a possible alternative place to work.

Inform your staff of these potential office relocations. This is especially important in large power outages when communications may be temporarily impossible. If locations are known ahead of time, your chances of quickly finding staff are optimized.

Money for a Disaster

In major disasters, local ATMs do not work, local banks are not open, and credit cards are useless. Have cash ready to sustain you for at least a month.

Establish with your bank an emergency line of credit that you can access any time after a disaster in case you need quick access to funds.

Adequate Insurance Coverage

Review your coverages and know how your policy will respond in a disaster. Does your policy cover building contents as well as the structure? Examine your need for business interruption coverage and extra expenses. Adjust coverages where needed. Review yearly.

Communication Plan

Communication is often the first to go in a disaster. Be ready with your default communication plan. After a major disaster, all communication avenues should be used early and often. Especially with an areawide disaster, do not assume that you know the communication issues for your target audience. So, be prepared to send information in different ways to increase the chances that your intended recipient will receive it.

Prepare a laminated, wallet-sized office contact card for your staff with vital key contact information. One side of the card has key staff member contact information (personal cell numbers and email addresses as well as work contact information), and the other side has court contact information and community emergency numbers. Have staff enter each other’s contact information into their cell phones as contacts.

Make sure that you or someone can:

  • post critical firm information on your firm’s website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or other social media;
  • contact by email or phone your clients, opposing counsel, and courts; and
  • post a simple post-disaster message, informing clients and staff of alternative methods of reaching you.

If you are living in an area prone to large disasters, consider an old-school wired phone that connects directly to a dedicated phone line without the need for another source of power. Sometimes in extensive power outages, a traditional landline provides the only available outside communication method. In extremis situations, the Red Cross will have satellite phones and will allow you to place a call or two. Also, after a disaster, check your bar association website for communication tools. For example, the Louisiana State Bar Association will set up after hurricanes an open forum where individuals can post temporary location information and contact information. Other local bar associations respond similarly in a disaster.

Accessing Client Files

Lawyers who digitize their data have the upper hand because access to client files can be easily restored with Internet access anywhere. Lawyers should consider at least digitizing active files as part of their disaster plan. At the very least, if you store paper files in your office, put them in a file cabinet away from areas that potentially could suffer water damage.

File backup is key to client file access after a disaster. There are several easy electronic backup methods, and most are inexpensive. The most common methods are:

  • Online cloud storage. Secure cloud storage providers offer cost-effective backup, either in real time or at set times that you choose (e.g., at the end of the day or twice a day). A good provider will have planned internally for their own disasters by making sure that multiple storage sites contain their customers’ data to maximize your chances of being able to get at your data when you need it. Research your provider before choosing. These services are very easy to use. File backup can be easily scheduled so that it need not depend on your remembering to do so. Cloud providers offer this as a subscription service with the cost often depending on the amount of data stored.
  • Personal or private cloud. Lawyers not wanting an online cloud arrangement can create their own cloud. If sharing files or often working remotely without a server, a private cloud is a relatively inexpensive way to set up remote file storage, sync, and sharing. Such a device would allow you to access your documents from any device and collaborate with clients and colleagues while staying in control of your data.
  • Simple external hard drive. This method is simple to use, easy to carry, and inexpensive. However, disadvantages exist. If the device is left at the office and the disaster has affected your office, the device may be damaged and/or you may be unable to retrieve it. Additionally, lawyers relying on this option often depend on only themselves to remember to do the backing up.
  • Other methods. Data can also be backed up to a network server or even large-capacity USB thumb drives in your office. Again, if these devices are stored at the office, they may not be accessible to you in a disaster. Additionally, USB thumb drives are fragile and easily lost and mislabeled. Further, backup largely depends on your remembering to do the backup. Keep in mind that a disaster may cause you to move around frequently, risking damage or loss of these devices.

Optimally, lawyers are digitizing and securely storing (encrypting when necessary) their client data and files using a couple of methods online and offline and backing up in real time or at least once a day. Whichever method you use, ensure that your backup method is secure by testing it regularly.

Your Family and Loved Ones

Attend to your family and loved ones. If the disaster affects an entire region, you will not be able to put your office back together again or be effective counsel to your clients unless your family is safe. Strategize with your family as to how you might respond in the case of a regional disaster. Keep in mind the type of accommodations that you and your family might need if evacuation is necessary. Don’t forget pets or elderly family members who might need to evacuate the area.

Your family disaster plan might also include a similar hard-copy binder as previously discussed, but with essential papers, passports, birth certificates, passwords, and contact information pertinent to your family. As with the binder for your office, scan your family plan binder’s contents and save electronic copies in several places.

Post-Disaster Tips

So, “it” has occurred, but you have a basic disaster plan. What do you do first? Here are some tips:

  • Attend to your family and yourself first. If your family and loved ones are not safe, you will not be useful to your firm, your staff, or your clients. Encourage your partners and your staff to take care of their own families as well.
  • Keep a level head. Everything goes wrong all at once during a disaster, if it is big enough, and everyone will be at wit’s end. Expect the unexpected. With a basic disaster plan binder and other strategies in place, and your family safe and sound, you can be the level head to handle the next step, whatever that might be.
  • Triage your issues. Resolve the one having the biggest impact.
  • Reestablish communications with your clients and staff. This is most likely going to be your biggest and most important first task toward recovery after taking care of your family and loved ones.
  • Implement your communication plan and get the word out through several channels as to how to contact you.
  • Contact courts and visit their websites for disaster information.
  • Contact opposing counsel and clients on any matters that require attention. Seek continuances as necessary.
  • Take photos of damage.

During Hurricane Katrina, I was practicing in a medium-sized firm in New Orleans. The flooding necessitated my firm’s and family’s relocation to another part of the state for several months, with us eventually returning to a severely damaged city. Recovery was long and hard. How I hated the phrase that “recovery would not be a sprint, but a marathon”! Notwithstanding, that mindset is useful, especially in the middle of “it.” And of course, also critical to recovery is having a simple disaster plan in place so that you can take the next steps as quickly as you can.

Deep breath! You got this!