A Dozen Disaster Recovery Tips From the ABA Law Practice Division

From co-author Nelson: Normally, I write SLAW columns with Sensei VP John Simek, but in light of the recent and horrific disasters experienced by American law firms, I teamed up with Jim Calloway, Director of Management Assistance Program at Oklahoma Bar Association, to offer these disaster recovery tips.

  1. Immediately after a disaster, there is only one thing that matters – human life. Do what you can possibly do to help those in need and to ensure the safety of those who work with and for you. Supply your employees with all the support resources you can.
  2. Establish communications. Hopefully, you have a disaster recovery plan (if not, preparing and adopting a plan should go on your priority list now). Follow the plan, which should include multiple communication options – via e-mail, text, phone calls or a website. Someone should be responsible for tracking information about those who have reported they are safe and reporting those who have not. Consider contracting with a service that automates notifications and responses. Everyone should be reminded of their roles in the disaster recovery. Someone should be contacting local government authorities. You may need to have the post office hold your mail or send it to a different address – assuming mail is being delivered. Your plan should also address who is responsible for contacting FEMA, the courts, and opposing counsel (to reschedule dates as needed), active clients, your insurance company, bank, landlord and significant vendors, including your payroll service. You will need to ensure that staff and attorneys understand how to fulfill their duties if communications are widely disrupted.
  3. Communicate with your clients. As recent events have shown, this may not be easy. You may not have the ability to call, text, or e-mail. One alternative, since most firms do not host their own website, is to have a temporary home page set up explaining the status of your firm/practice and advising your clients how (or if) they are able to contact you. If your office is unusable, make sure the first person who has access puts up a sign with temporary contact information in large letters on the door or frontage. Do not just tape a piece of paper there. Use nails or even (gulp) spray paint. You may also want to advise clients of how courts are handling delays during the recovery period until communications are restored.
  4. Hopefully, you have your law firm data stored in the cloud. One of the advantages of cloud based practice management solutions is that you should be able to access your data in the cloud once you have an Internet connection. Needless to say, your “cloud” solution should not be storing your data in your immediate geographic area unless you have a secondary cloud which is well out of harm’s way.
  5. If your e-mail is down, you certainly have a problem. Before the disaster strikes, you should have made sure that you have engaged an e-mail service vendor that “spools” (retains) your e-mail for delivery when you have power or better yet, synchronizes with your mailbox and provides an alternate mail transport mechanism. Such vendors often provide spam filtering, phishing prevention, the ability to send large files, encryption, etc. Spread the word as quickly as possible when the spooled e-mail is released – this is often done best by phone or text since people may not be checking their e-mail regularly if service has been unavailable for any length of time. If you use a service that provides 100% e-mail availability, clients will not even know that your primary e-mail technology was down.
  6. If the disaster lasts for some time, how will you pay your employees? We actually saw airlifts of money during Katrina. Whatever your payment plan, implement it. If your cash flow allows, be generous with modest advances to employees to help them recover.
  7. Make sure your system passwords are stored (encrypted) in the cloud – you may need them as part of the recovery. Get a full report from your IT folks as to what is functional, what is not and the proposed path to getting all systems up and running. Lease or buy any equipment that needs replacement.
  8. If laptops or other mobile devices have been lost in the disaster, remote wipe them to ensure the security of the data. They should all be encrypted as well to minimize unauthorized access.
  9. Post-disaster looting and destruction is a fact of life. If you have an on premise network and it is not well secured, secure it as soon as possible after the disaster is over. When it is safe to go to your office, take photos or videos of all damage for insurance purposes and remove (if necessary) the waterproof and fireproof safe which holds all your critical documents – which are hopefully replicated and encrypted in the cloud.
  10. If you still have a functional office, share what space you can with other attorneys. If you do not, seek out your colleagues who may have functional offices and ask for help. Alternatively, arrange for leased space. If your losses are great, you may be eligible to file a claim for emergency relief – investigate this avenue as it may be more immediate than any monies you receive from your insurance company.
  11. Accept assistance gratefully. We all like to think of ourselves as independent. We solve problems for others. But there’s no shame in receiving aid. Your bar association will be activating resources to assist you. Accept that bottle of water or free meal from aid workers if you need it. Ask colleagues if you are in need. The disasters bring out the worst in people, but also the best.
  12. Take care of yourself. Recover from a disaster is a marathon, not a sprint. Lawyers tend to “overwork” themselves out of difficult situations. Rest and good nutrition is more important now than ever. Disaster brings an enormous amount of stress to you and everyone in the affected community. Be kind and generous. Forgive the inappropriate behavior of others. Hug your family members.

Further resources from the American Bar Association may be found on the resources page for the ABA’s Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness.

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