October 31, 2017 article

How Are Solo and Small Firms Important Partners in Disaster-Relief Programs?

By Jackie Condella

Chauntis Jenkins Floyd knows a thing or two about practicing law in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, Chauntis is in her third year as chair of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Disaster Responses and Preparedness. The committee is dedicated to providing lawyers, bar associations, and the justice system with tools to prepare for and respond to disasters because, as Chauntis puts it, "It's not if the next disaster will hit us; it's when."

To this end, the Committee on Disaster Responses and Preparedness plans to host an upcoming webinar series called "Surviving a Disaster: Practicing in the Aftermath and Preparing Your Law Firm for the Next Disaster." I sat down with Chauntis to discuss the program.

What is "Surviving Disaster: Practicing in the Aftermath and Preparing Your Law Firm for the Next Disaster" about?

This program is designed to assist attorneys who are directly in disaster-affected areas, or may potentially be in disaster-affected areas, with how they can jump-start their practice in the aftermath of a disaster—What are the most important issues they may be facing? How can they address those issues—and to address some issues that may be specific to their area; for example, in Houston or Florida?

We also intend to educate—which is a part of our mission—lawyers everywhere on how they can prepare themselves and protect themselves before a disaster ever occurs.

Our immediate concern is to address some of the pertinent issues they may be dealing with right now based on what we know lawyers have faced in the past; for example, lawyers in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and those in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Also, to educate those who just might be interested, because it's not if, but when the next disaster may happen. And that may take various forms. So we hope that this information can be helpful to a very broad audience.

What are the issues or problems that arise most often in these disaster-affected areas for attorneys and law firms?

There may be a number of different things, and it varies depending on the area. One of the initial concerns is how do you protect your client's information after a disaster. Let's assume it's flooding, and your office has been flooded out. How do you restore this information? How do you obtain it? How do you back it up? Are there ways that you can recover information from attorneys you have been corresponding with? From your clients? How do you get information from the court if the court system is down? We want to address how you would handle any important deadlines that the court may impose.

Additionally, restoring important information that you may have in your office—how can that be restored? How can you relocate and set up shop as quickly as possible in another location if that area is completely inaccessible and you still need to serve clients that may be out of town?

We hope to address a number of different things, as well as the ethical considerations that we as attorneys have to keep at the forefront of our minds, even after a disaster, because even though a disaster strikes, you still have ethical obligations to your client to keep them informed of what's going on in your area, what's going on in their case. Those obligations are ongoing, and we want to make sure that we provide information that helps attorneys address all of those issues.

Can you tell us a little bit about the structure of your program?

The hope is to have this be a three-part program. Part one, we want to start with how to restart your practice in the aftermath of a disaster. We thought that it was important to address those issues that attorneys are potentially dealing with right now. And then we want to make this a full circle conversation. We want to dedicate more time for people, records, and protecting your most vital records—these are some of the things we've found in the past that people have the most questions about. We're dedicating part two to talking about that. Then part three, circling around full circle, what can you do to prepare yourself better for the next time, and for those who are sympathetic to those who have been in a disaster, what should they be considering right now? What are some of the things they should be doing right now to ensure they have a business continuity plan that prepares them and protects them against any disasters, whether they be natural or digital, or whatever may come? How can they best prepare themselves?

What is a business continuity plan?

A business continuity plan is basically a plan that a law firm or business creates ahead of time to ensure that they have policies, procedures, and safeguards in place should a disaster strike so they know this is the procedure we take and this is what we do if and when a disaster occurs. Having that plan in place if and when a disaster strikes makes it so lawyers can communicate effectively with their clients because they have things in place and know how to continue thereafter without trying to brainstorm and wonder, "What do I do next?"

The program will talk through how to create a business continuity plan. We will have a speaker, George Huff, who is an expert in this field and who does this day in and day out, and he is going to give a detailed presentation on how that's done, step by step.

Why is it important for companies, and law firms especially, to have a business continuity plan in place ahead of time?

It's extremely important because you never know when disaster will strike. We're not just talking about natural disaster; we can be talking about a cyber attack. Anything that debilitates a company to the point that it cannot function and serve the clients that it has for an extended period of time may be looked at as a disaster. So putting safeguards in place to protect your hard work as a business owner, and also to protect your reputation, as well as your clients, is extremely important. It is worth the investment on the front end to think all of these things through ahead of time with someone who is experienced and can advise you accordingly rather than after a disaster strikes. It really helps.

Who do you expect to have as speakers and panelists?

We are working and have confirmed three panelists, one from Houston, one from the Virgin Islands, and one from Florida. Additionally, we hope to have a panelist from Puerto Rico, as well as a judge and a disciplinary counsel. We thought that it was extremely important to have solo or smaller firm members from the states that were affected recently by the disaster. Oftentimes you'll find that webinars appear to be focused on the bigger firms, and sometimes small firms don't get what they need. But we wanted to change the focus because we feel that if we provide the information for smaller firms, this information would clearly be essential to use for the bigger firms that have the same concerns and maybe some other ones as well.

Additionally, sometimes smaller firms don't have the resources or access to the information that larger firms have. Larger firms recover quicker than smaller firms. So we wanted to make sure that we were serving the needs of those who may need more information and assistance—not that larger firms do not, but it was extremely important for us to partner with solo and smaller firms to provide this information because their experience is going to be somewhat unique and different from the experience of those who work in larger law firms.

So we're hoping that we get solo practitioners, people who work with legal services programs, as well as larger firms.

We also hope to get a speaker who would be a disciplinary counsel, who could speak more to the ethical concerns as well.

How can attorneys and firms that are not in the disaster-affected areas right now help out the attorneys who are trying to ramp up and experiencing the immediate concerns of how to deal with the aftermath of the recent disasters?

Our committee created the go-to ABA website for the recent disasters, www.ambar.org/disasterrelief. This website has all of the latest information that we are getting from outside sources like disaster legal services (DLS), which is getting us up-to-date information that we are putting on the website on a daily basis. The website contains information on how you can volunteer in the states of Texas and Florida, and up-to-date information on the Virgin Islands as well, and we working to update with as much information as possible about Puerto Rico.

Has the ABA, or have you, worked on programs similar to this after previous disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina?

I'm originally from New Orleans, and everyone from New Orleans has a "hurricane story." Mine is that I was at an ABA conference when Hurricane Katrina struck. But as an insurance lawyer, I was intimately involved in a lot of the litigation that came out of Hurricane Katrina.

This is my third year as chair of the Committee on Disaster Responses and Preparedness. However, before I became chair, the committee had been involved for many years with creating programs designed to assist lawyers after a disaster. The committee created "A Guide to Disaster Planning for Bar Associations," "A Lawyer's Guide to Disaster Planning," Disaster 101 videos, and many other webinars over the years.

We have always been a very strong committee. And very thankful of the support we have received, especially over the last several years when we went from being a special committee to standing committee, thanks to the support of the ABA president, who has really been supportive of us, helping to take the lead under her direction to provide information to the entire ABA.

In the past three years since I've been chair, we've expanded to an entirely new level—and I think that is important. That's a part of our mission statement, and as chair I've made that a priority because we have to educate attorneys as much as possible.

There's a misconception that it's "your disaster, not mine." But it's "our disaster," because as history has shown us, we are all vulnerable to one type of disaster or another. So, by us lending a hand and helping someone else, in return we are educating ourselves about what we need to do to protect our company or our office from a disaster that may happen in the future.

Why should people sign up for this program?

The next disaster is not if, but when. It's our professional obligation to educate ourselves on how to protect our practice and protect our clients before, during, and after a disaster. This is a topic that must be a part of our yearly continuing legal education to ensure our resiliency in the aftermath of a disaster.

For more information on the American Bar Association Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness and its resources and publications, and to learn more about the committee's upcoming webinars, visit https://www.americanbar.org/groups/committees/disaster.html.

Jackie Condella is an attorney at the Carmen D. Caruso Law Firm, in Chicago, Illinois.

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