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Law Practice Today

February 2023

Disasters: How to Identify One; How to Prepare; and How to Keep Your Cool

Shawn L Holahan


  • Before turning a blind eye to disaster preparedness, consider expanding your definition of “disaster” beyond the usual earthquake, tropical and other cataclysmic climactic event.
Disasters: How to Identify One; How to Prepare; and How to Keep Your Cool

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I see your eyes rolling into the back of your head. You want to plan for disasters as much as you want to prepare your tax return. But, before turning a blind eye to disaster preparedness, consider expanding your definition of “disaster” beyond the usual earthquake, tropical and other cataclysmic climactic event. Disasters come in many forms and with different timelines (sudden, expected, or even slow moving).

Are you ready? As a small office practitioner, your recovery from the disaster du jour will be made unnecessarily tougher without a simple disaster plan. So, survive and thrive by creating one. The good news is that an effective disaster plan is easy to do, simple to implement and essential for recovery.

Effective planning will separate the survivors from those who throw in the towel. But don’t overthink it. If you do, you won’t do it. Keep it simple. The purpose of a simple disaster plan is only to provide a head start – it won’t resolve, nor should it, every issue that you will face. Each disaster has its own fingerprint. But, regardless of the disaster type, the existence of a simple plan will determine how fast you recover and get your office up and humming again.

And, if all of this isn’t anxiety producing enough, 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 simple disaster plan in place before it happens.

What is a Disaster?

Yep, I’m going there briefly – just for those who still think that a disaster won’t affect them. Start your disaster planning by taking a few moments to think about your small office’s ability to survive these common “disaster” scenarios.

  • Fire/Hurricanes/Tornadoes/Natural Disasters: If your office was damaged by fire or natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado, how long would it take you to contact your clients, recreate your computer data, contact your insurance company, process invoices, contact opposing counsel and generally get your practice operational again? Who would be responsible for performing each of these functions?
  • Illness: If you or a family member had a heart attack or illness necessitating you being out of the office unexpectedly or indefinitely, are your files organized such that someone could pick up your caseload without your clients suffering any disadvantage? Would you or someone in your office know the status of the matters in your office? Would your answers change if your assistant was out sick or away on vacation at the same time?
    • If a partner/associate is suddenly disabled or impaired, would you or someone in your office know his/her schedule for the next three months?
  • Sudden Personnel Changes: If a key employee such as your secretary/legal assistant/bookkeeper suddenly quit, would you or someone in your office know their filing systems so that you could find information in paper files and/or on their computers? Do you have copies, or know where they keep the keys, for filing cabinets, safes, etc.? Do you know their passwords for work related accounts (including voice mail, computer login, e-mail, the accounting package and any other software applications they use)?
    • Have a plan to prevent an unexpected termination from going awry. Do you have an employee with too much power over the information that you need?
  • Theft or Burglary: If a computer was lost or stolen, could you or someone in your office retrieve data, the serial numbers of the equipment and the original cost of the equipment?
  • Major Computer Malfunction: If your computer system was attacked by a virus and/or your data were rendered unusable or unavailable, would you be able to retrieve your data to start anew?
  • Trust Fund Theft: If a staff member disappeared with client trust funds, would you have sufficient records to determine what was taken and when?
  • Power Outages: Power outages, whether intermittent or longer term, are their own special kind of hell. You might think that because everything is on your phone or in the cloud, you’re golden. Well, rethink that. You’re golden only with dependable Internet access. You’re not so golden if you’ve run out of power and depend on your being able to use your device to access contact information. If an area power outage is protracted, your ability to recharge devices may be limited. You may have to borrow someone else’s phone because you ran out of juice.  How many cell numbers or email addresses do you know from memory?
    • A power outage might be hyperlocal - as in a flat tire in a rural area with a dead smartphone and your having to borrow a good Samaritan’s phone to make a call. Who can you call?

If unable to answer these questions as quickly or as adequately as you would like, it’s time for simple disaster planning.

The Elements of a Simple Disaster Plan

Your simple disaster plan will give you a head start in overcoming two challenges: reestablishing communication and access to your client’s data. All disaster recovery depends on these two items. Review your plan once a year to ensure that your information is accurate. Obviously, the disaster type will dictate the extent to which you implement your plan and need the information.

Element 1: The “No Tech” Critical Info Disaster Binder: The “no tech” disaster binder is an actual physical binder with critical contact information. It will be your lifeline in a power outage and/or impaired access to electronic data. The “no tech” binder contains these items:

  • Family member contact information.
  • Staff contact information including alternative email addresses, personal and work cell numbers, emergency contact information, and a possible location where each may go if evacuating.
  • Contact information for current clients and opposing counsel.
  • 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 making a video of your office environment and sending it to the cloud.
  • List them in a non-obvious manner for firm social media, website, cloud subscription, bank, and any other work-related Internet accounts.
  • Vendor and supplier contact information.
  • An additional cellphone charger (a solar cell charger); charger for your laptop.

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 is not in the same general area as you or your office). Email encrypted copies of the binder to yourself and to someone whom you trust in an area away from you. Copy it to an encrypted flash/thumb drive for your wallet and send a copy to a secure cloud provider.

Element 2:  Identification of Possible Temporary Office Locations:  Create a list of possible temporary office relocations, including your home if not damaged, in case a disaster requires a temporary move. Nearby colleagues might agree to a standing reciprocal agreement that each could use the other’s office temporarily.

Inform staff ahead of time of these potential office relocations. Large power outages may make communications temporarily impossible. If potential relocations are known ahead of time, your chances of quickly finding staff are optimized.

Element 3:  Money for a Disaster:  Large power outages are a nightmare because local ATMs do not work, local banks are not open, and credit cards are useless. Have a cash stash to sustain you for at least two months. Establish an emergency line of credit with your bank that you can access any time after a disaster should you need quick access to funds.

Element 4:  Adequate Insurance Coverage:  Review coverages and be familiar with how your policy would respond in a disaster, especially regarding building contents and structure. Examine your need for business interruption coverage and extra expenses. Adjust coverages where needed. Review yearly.

Element 5:  Communication Plan: The primary purpose of the communication plan is to inform clients and staff how to reach you in the fog after a disaster. Assume that in a big disaster, your intended recipient is having similar, if not worse, communication issues . Be redundant and resourceful. Repeat critical information (where you have relocated, how to reach you) wherever you can. Social media is your friend. Create a short paragraph that you can easily cut and paste to various platforms with your new contact information. Redundancy will increase the chances that your intended recipient will receive it. 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.

Prepare a laminated, wallet-sized office contact card for yourself and staff with vital key contact information. One side of the card has key staff member contact information (personal cell numbers/alternative email addresses/work contact information/emergency contacts), 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.

If in an area prone to large disasters, an old-school wired phone that connects directly to a dedicated phone line without the need for other power may work even in a power outage and possibly provide the only available outside communication method. If all hell has broken out, the Red Cross will have satellite phones and will allow a call or two. Your bar association website will also be a resource for contact information and court information.

Element 6:  Accessing Client Files: Be wise, digitize. Digitizing your data before the disaster will give you the upper hand because access to client files can be restored easily with Internet access anywhere. If you’re not committed to the cloud, consider at least digitizing active files as part of your disaster plan. At the very least, keep paper files in your office away from areas that potentially could suffer water damage.

Providing for file backup before a disaster is key to restoring client files after a disaster. Several easy electronic backup methods exist, and most are inexpensive.

  • Online Cloud Storage. A number of secure cloud providers offer cost-effective backup which is easy to schedule, in real time or at set times of your choosing (e.g., at the end of the day or twice a day). A good provider will have multiple storage sites for their customers’ data to maximize chances of data retrieval when you need it. This is offered as a subscription service with the cost often depending on the amount of data stored.
  • Personal or Private Cloud. If an online cloud subscription is not wanted, create your own cloud. If sharing files or working remotely without a server, a private cloud is a relatively inexpensive way to set up remote file storage, sync, and sharing. Additionally, a private cloud would allow document access from any device and collaboration with clients and colleagues while staying in control of your data.
  • Simple External Hard Drive. The advantages are clear - 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 irretrievable and/or damaged. Additionally, lawyers using this option often depend on only themselves to remember to back up data.
  • 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, easily lost and/or mislabeled. Further, backup with these methods 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 through 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.

Element 7: Your Family and Loved Ones:  Though listed last, this is the most important. After a disaster, attend to your family and loved ones first. With your family safe, only then will you have the mental reserves necessary to restore your office and/or to be effective counsel to your clients. Strategize with your family beforehand as to how you might respond in the case of a regional disaster and where your family might go should an evacuation be necessary. Include pets and elderly family members in your plans.

Just as you created for your office, your family disaster plan should also include a similar hard copy “no tech” binder with essential papers, passport and birth certificate copies, relevant 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.

After the Disaster

Your simple disaster plan will help dissipate some of the mental fog after a disaster because it provides a clear roadmap for those first steps in restoring communication with family, staff and clients and accessing your client’s data. But what do you do first?

  • Attend to Your Family First. If your family and loved ones are not safe, you will not be useful to yourself, 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 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 Like a Beast. Resolve the one having the biggest impact first and keep moving. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the “good enough for now” approach.
  • Reestablish Communications with 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 Requiring Attention. Seek continuances as necessary.
  • Take Photos and Videos of Damage. Contact your insurer.

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. My most hated expression post-Katrina was that rebuilding was not going to be a sprint, but rather a marathon. And it was indeed. The word “resilience” bothered me too. It was overused, as was the expression “that which does not kill you makes you stronger.” The fact of the matter is when something approaches that level of danger (could kill you), you’re not stronger for having survived and resilient is not exactly what you’re feeling. You’re different, and maybe, even better in some ways. But, “stronger” and “resilient” would not be my first choice of descriptors for that kind of situation. Pace yourself. Be patient with yourself and others. Take breaks, mental and physical. Look for silver linings – like being able to change things for the better. Those silver linings are easier to see with a simple disaster plan in place.