Disaster Communication: Develop a Plan and Know How to Execute It

By Edward Poll
Reprinted from the November 2006 issue of ABA Technology eReport.

By Edward Poll

There are two types of law firms: those that have experienced a disaster, and those that will. Not every disruptive event is a disaster. Professional liability, malpractice claims, client relations problems, and poor business judgment are all problems for the firm, but they are also part everyday business. A true disaster is an event or circumstance that can drive the firm out of business. Five broad categories fit this description:

  • Natural disaster (hurricane, tornado, flood, fire)

  • Technology disaster: building failure (roof collapse, water pipes burst) or computer failure (data or hardware lost or in jeopardy)

  • Health disaster (epidemics, environmental catastrophe)

  • Crime disaster: violent crime (workplace assault, hostage situation, bomb detonation, robbery) and cybercrime (hacking, identity theft/phishing, employee sabotage)

  • Personal disaster (sudden death or disability, succession crisis due to retirement or illness)


Whatever the disastrous event, your normal communications infrastructure is disrupted just at the time when you need it most. This is especially true in natural or technology disasters. Even a simple power outage can take down email, phones, and pagers. You cannot print memos to distribute. The lights are out, and at least some people are anxious or even frightened--they need to hear and understand what is happening.

The goal of disaster planning is making a recovery that ensures the survival of the firm. Central to disaster recovery is communication with firm members, clients, vendors, courts, and others who make your practice work. Disaster recovery begins when communication is re-established, and that means a good communication plan must be in place before disaster occurs. Such a plan requires both careful preparation and effective execution.


It takes time and effort to gather all possible information on potential communication points. These are the major items to assemble. Keeping the information updated is challenging, given how rapidly people change phone numbers, email addresses, and employers. Review and revise your information at least every six months. Otherwise, it may be useless when you need it most.

  • Firm personnel directory with all information. This should include pager numbers, cell phone numbers, office, and home telephone numbers, vacation home numbers, office and home email addresses, with alternate emergency contacts whenever possible.

  • Personnel tracking procedure. Whether you use database software or a bulletin board, use some method to track the whereabouts of all lawyers and staff during normal business hours.

  • Pocket/wallet card information. Prepare laminated, wallet-sized cards with emergency instructions for contacts, including telephone and cell numbers for designated emergency team members as well as an emergency contact phone number (preferably an 800 number, since long distance lines generally remain functional) to call for updates.

  • Telephone tree. Set up an internal communications network in which firm members have preassigned responsibilities to contact each other and establish their condition and whereabouts. Include backups if primary callers are not available. Arrange alternate contact numbers, besides the 800 number, for employees to call for information (another office location, for example).

  • Client list. Maintain offsite an updated list of current clients, matters, contact information, including telephone, cell phone, home phone, and email addresses. Assign several people to contact clients, tell them what has happened, and explain the status of pending matters. Convey that the firm will do its best to take care of needs and concerns.

  • Building information. Names, office and home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, office and home email addresses for critical building personnel including building manager, operations officer, chief engineer. Provide these people with the same information for key people on your emergency team. Plan in advance to set up temporary space, including furnishings, computers, and phones.

  • Court/docketing information. Court telephone numbers and a current docket calendar must be available at an offsite location. Establish a referral contact with another firm that can handle such practice matters as requesting a continuance or rescheduling a deposition

  • Vendor list. Have hard copy and electronic lists of service provider contacts (with office, cell, and home numbers) who can help re-establish your practice: bankers, insurance carriers, bar associations, utilities, data security and Internet services, legal specialists like Lexis/Nexis and WestCompany. Include your account or customer number.

  • External help sources. This should be as comprehensive as possible, with both local emergency personnel (police, fire, EMT) and national contact numbers (local offices may be affected by the same disaster that hits you) for organizations such as the American Red Cross and FEMA.


Execution of your communication plan should utilize the time and talents of your full disaster recovery team. The makeup of this team is central to your preparation. Choosing people who will keep their heads and actually perform the tasks is crucial, and there should be a backup for each in case of absence, illness, or panic on the part of the primary designee.

Adapt the team structure to different aspects of your facility and organization. Involve building management, and assign tasks like contacting vendors to staffers (such as in accounting). Department managers should have input regarding who will be responsible for what and set up a departmental plan for contacting those employees after the event to put the things in motion. Break down tasks and assign one person (with backup person) for each. Tasks and contacts could include:

  • Building management: Contact executive director and office administrator

  • Executive director: Contact senior firm management (managing partner, executive committee)

  • Office administrator: Notify emergency team members and managers

  • HR and technology directors: Collaborate on lawyer and staff contact through call-in and electronic messages (the latter on the firm website and intranet).

Several people on your emergency team should be trained to send broadcast voicemail to all mailboxes. If people can access the phone system, this is an efficient way to reach them. Designate persons to send broadcast email to everyone from and to both office and home email systems. Establish the capability to do this from home PCs and laptops if the network is down.

Key people should have three complete sets of all information (office, car, home). This does not mean the whole burden need fall on your "A Team." Some work may be delegated that will not require the person to have access to all information, much of which should be kept as confidential as possible.

Once the nature and severity of the event is evaluated and an assessment of damage is made, you can determine whether operations can continue (perhaps in a reduced capacity) or if relocation to an alternate facility is required. When decision makers have decided the course of action, the information should be given to your emergency team by the most feasible method available.


Communication is the most important element of disaster planning because the human element is both the first concern, and the most difficult to deal with. Effective disaster communication planning can mitigate the impact on the lives of individuals within a firm by helping ensure the firm's survival. Putting one's personal and professional lives back together is difficult at best, but having a plan on how to proceed can make it less stressful. Your energy on such effort is like insurance: useless and expensive when not needed, and priceless when needed.

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