Disaster Preparedness Essential for Long-Term Survival

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The Ebola virus. The Boston Marathon bombings. The California drought.

Disasters happen. It's not a question of if, but when.

That goes for law firms as well. The only unknowns are the type of disaster, when it will occur, and how bad it will be. A large-scale fire or a catastrophic storm is a disaster, but so, too, is a burst water pipe or a computer system meltdown for those who are unprepared.

Disasters can destroy offices and records. Think about what happens when the evidence in a case has been destroyed. Are the guilty released upon the community and the innocent unable to prove their innocence? What happens when the documents that define the lives of people are lost? Are ownership and personal status impossible to prove?

Is recovery from such a disaster even possible? All the evidence says yes. Effective disaster and recovery planning can mitigate the impact on the lives of people at a firm by helping to ensure the firm's survival.

There are many types of situations for which your firm should have a crisis management plan, including:

  • Technology failure or loss of data

  • Natural disasters

  • Workplace accidents/fatalities

  • Workplace violence and unethical behavior of employees

  • Disturbances such as terrorism and political unrest

  • Major business problem causing a negative impact

  • Death of a senior lawyer

  • Crime

  • Major fraud

  • Malicious rumor/slander

Considering how much damage can result from something as innocuous as a faulty sprinkler system, it may be understandable that many law firm disaster planners previously concentrated their attention on smaller or more common threats while hardly ever considering larger-scale disasters. Today, it is easy to see that every firm should address larger-scale disasters.

If, for example, it is discovered that a client was symptomatic for Ebola while in your office, your office could be shut down for some time as part of a quarantine measure.

What does it mean to have a disaster plan? The following elements are essential:

  • Conduct a risk assessment to review readiness and look for weakness.

  • Prepare a disaster recovery plan manual that delineates a disaster recovery team and spells out who does what.

  • Review (or establish) the needed insurance coverage.

  • Do a complete inventory of physical assets and photo-document the entire office with all its contents to prove losses.

  • Create an internal emergency communication system for lawyers, staff, clients, vendors and the court, incorporating recorded hotline messages and out-of-area contact points.

  • Have cellphones ready for use by firm personnel in the event that landline phone service is lost.

  • Contact building managers and real estate agents to establish contingency plans for temporary office space.

  • Back-up all computer data and store data backups as well as important physical records and documents off site.

  • Install a computer program that will be able to undelete or "reclaim" files that are inadvertently or intentionally erased.

  • Build a plan for how to carry on key practice matters by referral arrangement with another firm.

  • Keep accounts receivable current so that you have the necessary extra funds for rent, payroll, settlements and other cash demands.

  • Establish a solid relationship with your banker so that you can get an emergency loan.

  • Establish an employee assistance fund to help tide over staff members and their families in the event of a disaster.

  • Have a written succession plan in case a primary rainmaker or managing partner becomes injured or dies.

  • Create security procedures to protect your premises and files against disgruntled employees, unhappy clients and deranged strangers.

Putting your personal and professional lives back together is difficult at best, but having a plan for how to proceed at least makes it feasible.

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