Recovering From Disaster (part two)
by Edward Poll
(County Bar Update, January 2002, Vol. 22, No. 1)

 

Recovering From Disaster

(Second part of a two-part series; part one — Planning for Disaster — appeared in the November 2001 issue of County Bar Update)

By Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC. Poll is a certified management consultant and coach in Los Angeles who advises attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively while increasing their profits at the same time. The opinions expressed are his own. To make suggestions or comments about this article, contact Poll at (800) 837-5880 or via e-mail at edpoll@lawbiz.com or via his Web site at www.lawbiz.com. (c) 2001

After recent events — the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, and then the American Airlines Flight 587 crash two months and one day later, many businesses are extremely nervous. We don’t know "when the other shoe will drop," and we are expecting it any moment. John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach, once said that "failing to plan is planning to fail." People today are taking those words to heart and focusing on the process of disaster preparedness planning.

Disaster preparedness planning can be viewed as an opportunity to review your law practice from the broad or macro perspective and to ask yourself the following questions: Are we as effective and efficient as we can be? What do we need to do to assure the continuity of our practice in the event of some unexpected occurrence?

If you look at the review process in this light, you can see that you have the opportunity to improve the business side of your practice as well as assuring your practice’s continuation. This will put a positive spin on what we do, create the necessary buy-in from management and motivate people to want to work with you on this important project.

The Planning

Most elements in the disaster preparedness planning process that you need to consider fall into one of three categories:

1. How do you contact, communicate with and reassure your employees (both staff and lawyers) after a disaster?

2. How do you contact, communicate with and reassure your clients and others you deal with on behalf of your clients?

3. What must be done to get the firm "back in business"?

Some of the elements that you should consider when reviewing the macro picture of the firm to provide for a rapid recovery are the following:

• Risk Management Assessment: What risks are you likely to face? This is a function of geography and political climate as well as profile of the firm, among other factors.

• Insurance Coverage: What kind do you need and how much? What claims procedures need to be followed?

• Files and Records Safeguarding Procedures: ASPs (account service providers that store data remotely) have been shunned by many lawyers because of fear of security breaches on the Internet. Now may be the time to reconsider this as an alternative method of safeguarding certain information off site.

• Emergency Communications: Emergencies can be both large and small. In the event of need, do you know how to contact your lawyers and all of your staff? Do you know whom all of your clients and former clients are and how to reach them?

• Systems & Equipment: What systems and equipment should you have in the firm? And how are you going to replace this equipment in the event of a disaster? Do you have the information required to get new equipment in place? Since communication is essential, have you considered cell phones for everyone? How about BlackBerry wireless e-mail units?

• Temporary Space: If you were unable to return to your offices, do you have alternative temporary space available? Whether by a major disaster or even a "minor" one such as being flooded out or experiencing a power failure, the result may be the same, and new temporary space may be required to continue operating.

• Succession Planning: If you were to lose a principal rainmaker or managing partner, do you know who to turn to for continuing leadership and guidance? Like our founding fathers who created a succession pattern, this may provide you with the opportunity to look beyond the immediate concern to consider the very continuity and survivability of the law firm.

• Banking Relations: In the event of a disaster when access to cash flow is limited in the short run, a line of credit to be used solely for disaster recovery purposes may be essential. Make these arrangements with your banking sources now — not when it’s too late and everyone else is in line wanting money.

These are some of the elements required for the pre-event planning process. While these suggestions are common sense and may even be repetitive, repetition doesn’t hurt until we have all looked at this important issue and created the plan appropriate for our own circumstances.

The Recovery

How do we get "back in business" after a disaster, assuming we’ve done all the assessments, planning and "upgrading" of our business processes mentioned above? Here are some steps to follow:

Assess the Actual Damage

• Contact local emergency operations to register a claim for relief and determine how extensive the damage is in your community. Are you talking about only your facility or is the entire community affected (which might tax the resources available to help re-create your particular environment).

• Contact your property/casualty insurer. Review your policy and talk with the insurance representative about the loss and available coverage (loss of income/extra expense, business interruption coverage, etc.). Many insurance people are very knowledgeable and very helpful in navigating through the morass of insurance claims and forms required for quick response.

• Contact your E&O insurer to inform the carrier of the disaster and obtain information/advice about how to avoid malpractice in the event of missed deadlines and so forth that may result. In the recent September 11 tragedy, insurance carriers got involved to give advice on how to recreate office dockets, etc., and how to notify clients and courts in the most timely manner possible. In addition, the courts extended deadlines for filing documents to further assist attorneys and clients impacted by the tragedy.

• Assess the damage to determine what, if anything, is salvageable and how long recovery efforts will take.

• Contact the landlord, if applicable, to determine your obligations under the lease agreement if your space cannot be accessed and to discuss any recovery efforts being made to help you locate new space if required. Many high-rise complexes are owned and/or managed by firms with multiple locations, and space may be available in these other locations. This temporary fix may be sufficient to keep you operating and to keep your landlord/tenant relationship intact.

Business Continuation

Communication:

• If you have a toll-free telephone number for your staff and attorneys to call for up-to-date information (and for assurances that they are OK), place a message on that phone number. Otherwise, contact all of your firm members and employees to inform them of the status and to establish follow-up contact procedures (telephone trees, emergency information hotline) until office space is located and everyone can be under one roof again.

• Contact your clients to give them current information, to discuss the status of their matters and to provide them assurance that their matters are being handled properly despite the firm’s difficulties. Obtain information from them that may be missing from your remaining files and records.

• Contact vendors to let them know about your new temporary location or to request their assistance in locating new facilities and equipment.

• Contact the post office and other delivery services to stop delivery to your damaged location, to re-route mail to a temporary location or to arrange for pick-up of your mail.

Banks:

• Contact your bank(s) for replacement checks.

• Request temporary loan advances where necessary in accordance with previously arranged line(s) of disaster event credit.

Payroll Service:

• Contact the payroll service to let them know whether there will be a temporary or permanent interruption of payroll and who will remain on payroll in the event of an extended recovery period.

Office Space/Furnishings:

• Identify alternative work locations, including attorneys and staff working from their own residences on a temporary basis.

• Call a local realtor to help find office space in the event other opportunities fail to produce an interim solution.

• Share space with others temporarily (lawyers, accountants, hotels) where necessary.

• Obtain (rent, borrow or purchase) furnishings (desks, chairs, lamps, filing cabinets, bookshelves) as required.

Telephone Service:

• Arrange to have phone calls forwarded to a new number, or arrange for a telephone answering service with a prepared message until a new system is in place.

• Arrange temporary service with the local telephone company at the temporary location.

Equipment:

• Contact current equipment vendors for a review of existing leases/contracts and your/their performance obligations under the terms of those leases or contracts.

• Contact equipment vendors, current and others, to assist your recovery efforts with computer hardware and peripherals to facilitate a quick re-entry to productivity.

• Consider the types of equipment you will need to replace:

Computer
Computer network
Printer
Fax machine
Copier
Dictation equipment
Typewriters

Identify portable computers (such as laptops) and home computers that your attorneys and staff have that might be available for home use during the recovery period. Assess the need for additional equipment to facilitate mobile productivity.

Office Supplies:

• Contact your supply vendors to obtain necessary supplies.

• Contact your printer to print new stationery, business cards, etc., including possible change of address and phone number.

• Contact forms vendors (billing and other forms).

Records Recovery:

• Once it’s determined that the disaster is over and space is accessible, begin assessing records and files damage. Prioritize damaged documents to be restored to protect the most critical documents from further damage. Separate those records that are of critical importance from those that can wait for restoration.

• Determine whether retaining consultants or other experts is necessary.

• Document the destruction of any files or other material for legal and insurance purposes. Use a disposal certificate to indicate what is beyond recovery and why.

• Evaluate records storage areas to thoroughly repair, sterilize and/or dry areas where records will be stored before the records are returned to those areas. Inspect the damaged area for mold, rust and other damage for at least one year after the disaster.

Library:

• Evaluate possibility/cost of repairing books.

• Identify subscriptions and volumes that need to be replaced immediately.

• Arrange with other firms/universities to use their library facilities in the short run.

• Re-establish links with Westlaw, LexisNexis, etc.

• Publish a resource list for attorneys, e.g., where to go for library services.

• Contact courts to determine where court will be held, new schedules, available records, etc.

The question is not if a disaster will occur — It is a question of when it will occur and what type of disaster it will be. And the disaster doesn’t have to be a major tragedy like the crash and collapse of the World Trade Center. The disaster can be a fire in your office, damage done by a disgruntled employee, or a plumbing leak that floods your office and interrupts your practice. Being prepared and knowing what to do to get back in business with the greatest possible speed and least disruption will benefit both you and your clients.

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