YourABA: June 2013
YourABA October 2013 Masthead

New ABA tool guides legal organizations in surviving a disaster

The American Bar Association has developed a guide to help local and state bar associations and other legal organizations to enhance their emergency preparedness.

"Surviving a Disaster: Guide to Disaster Planning for Bar Associations" serves as a template for these groups in creating a business continuity plan. The guide, prepared by the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness and the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security, was unveiled last month and is available for free online.

"This is not a one-time commitment on our part," committee Staff Director Bob Horowitz said. "We are developing a continuity project so that we can provide ongoing goods and services to help lawyers, firms and associations develop or improve their existing plans."

“The bottom line is,
if you have a plan going into an incident, it helps
to minimize chaos.”

Horowitz moderated a webinar, which is also available for free download on the ABA website, that featured CHHS Associate Directors Amy Major and Megan Timmins discussing the essential components of a business continuity plan.

"A useful continuity plan is really just whatever works the best for you," Major said during the program. "You can pick and choose aspects of the guide that are most useful for you. Ultimately, your plan needs to work for you and doesn’t have to look exactly like the guide."

A continuity plan outlines procedures for an organization to respond to an event or emergency and addresses from the immediate aftermath to usually 30 days after the incident. Having a plan in place helps maintain functionality after a disaster and provides for the continuation of essential services.

"The bottom line is, if you have a plan going into an incident, it helps to minimize chaos," Major said. "You’re not starting from the ground floor. You at least have something to build upon."

The first step in writing a business continuity plan is identifying an organization’s essential functions.

"The tough part about it is there is no magic calculus to determine if something is essential," Timmins said. "Generally speaking, the only universal essential function I can tell you that we have come across is payroll."

Determining essential functions requires a frank and honest discussion. Essential functions might include tasks that achieve a group’s mission, provide vital services for its members or maintain the safety and well-being of the community.

"Making these decisions upfront is difficult, but it’s necessary for the rest of your plan," Timmins said. "You cannot do any of the rest of your plan without getting through this step."

After deciding on essential functions, the next step is to break down each one to figure out what critical processes and services are needed to perform the task.

Then an organization must assign the right people to the right jobs to successfully carry out these essential functions, Major said. She stressed the importance of making sure employees have a clear understanding of what their role will be.

"The great variable in any emergency is you don’t know who will be able to help and who will not," Major said. Because of this, an organization should put in place an order of succession, with at least two alternates. These successors need to have the proper training, background, education and authority to complete the tasks they might be called on to perform, she said.

She also cautioned against assigning too many jobs to one employee — usually that person in the office who is the go-to for many different people or departments. "You want to make sure you are not delegating too many responsibilities for the functions to your ‘superhero,’" Major said.

An organization should also identify vital records, systems and equipment, those items that are needed to complete its essential functions and that would be costly to re-create or replace if destroyed, Timmins said. She recommended compiling a document with details about each item, including its location, and then doing an assessment for each item, asking questions such as what are the risks to this item, does it need to be duplicated or should it be stored elsewhere.

Major said an organization needs to find an alternate facility where it can perform its essential functions in case its main facility is unusable during an emergency. The simplest option, she said, is to work remotely from home or another location.

In choosing an alternate facility, the location is usually the "most significant" and "most overlooked" factor, Major said. "For an alternate facility, you don’t necessarily want it near your primary facility because a widespread disaster could knock out both your primary and your alternate facilities," she explained.

Other factors to consider include the type of space, the transportation available, the communication setup, the building’s security and, for distant locations, the availability of food and lodging nearby.

Major and Timmins recommended reaching out to vendors, other groups and firms to form partnerships that may be useful during an emergency.

"This is a great time when you are going through this process to make friends with some of these people that you rely on because you don’t want to wait until the time of emergency," Timmins said.

After surviving the immediate aftermath, an organization should form a recovery team and outline how to phase back in general operation functions, Major said. Later on, assess the organization’s response and document the lessons learned to help plan for future events, she added.

Finally, Major said to ensure that regular updates are made to the plan, at least once per quarter. Unscheduled maintenance should also occur whenever there are personnel changes, she noted.

An organization should hold regular training and exercises to test the plan and identify flaws, Timmins said.

"Ideally all employees should have some level of familiarity, whether it’s just a very basic overview training of your continuity plan," she added.

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