Where are You with Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Planning?

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911. Three numbers that, until 2001, gave most of us peace of mind if we were dealing with an emergency. Someone breaks into your home? Call 911. Someone is hurt and needs an ambulance? Call 911. The house is on fire? Call 911.

Then, without warning, early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, our concept of those numbers changed. 9/11 became synonymous with disaster. It no longer carried the connotation of "help." 9/11 suddenly became shorthand for "attack," "terrorists" or "disaster."

As with many things American, we attempted to find a "silver lining" in the gray clouds that gathered on 9/11. Many of us began to understand that, while we would never forget what happened, we could learn how to recover from disasters.

What to do when disaster strikes

We saw many businesses and law firms fail around Ground Zero, but we also saw many survive. In the process, we learned that certain things needed to be undertaken immediately in order to ensure survival.

Those things include:

  • If a business loses its offices, secure new ones;
  • If its computers are destroyed, replace them;
  • If its finances are damaged, repair them; and
  • If its people are harmed, find them, heal them and protect them immediately.
In the Los Angeles legal community during late autumn 2001, several law firm executives came together to learn about disaster recovery and, specifically, how to create a plan that targets the legal environment. We focused on what it meant to recover from each aspect of a disaster.

Recovery is overwhelming. Many questions have to be answered: What to do? How to do it? How to organize it? When, where and how to communicate it? When to activate it? How much to spend? How big should it be? How small should it be? How comprehensive should it be? How often should it be updated? After months of work, our group had a working copy of a disaster recovery plan.

"Success in the face of catastrophe will happen only if the firm has plans in place to take care of its clients by carrying on business, and to take care of its employees by establishing an employee assistance fund."

Creating a plan

It's now years later, and as you read this, you should be mindful of a few concepts to which I think you are going to have to commit:

  • You can't create an acceptable plan within a couple days or weeks. Good plan design takes time and effort.
  • You are going to have to update your plan constantly if it is to remain viable and fully integrated into your firm's operational protocols.
  • You must make it a priority for everyone within your firm to know and understand this plan.
  • Keep it simple. Disasters create stress and stress leads to errors. If you take the time to make the plan as simple as possible, you are more likely to learn it, update it, and use it when you need it.
Power of the people

People are the key to disaster recovery. Sure, insurance is critical. It is imperative that you purchase insurance to plan for catastrophes. But do not underestimate the role of people in any recovery.

In terms of catastrophes, there are two kinds of insurance: the kind for wide-scale catastrophes, such as a tornado, that impacts entire communities, and the kind for small-scale catastrophes, such as a building fire or a plumbing leak that only affects individual firms or lawyers.

I have coached and consulted for a number of clients in both situations. A combination of technology and multiple offices, as would be the case with larger firms, makes catastrophic situations easier. For example, technology makes litigation matters a bit easier to handle because you can get copies of filed documents from the courthouse.

Of course, this only works if the courthouse is not also impacted by the catastrophe. One of my clients had a difficult time in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina because the courthouse was under water. His good fortune was that he was not the only one in that situation and was not at the epicenter of the problem. On the other hand, he was a one-man firm, which led to greater difficulties than if he had worked at a large firm.

In a large firm, lawyers would use technology and work from home or some other facility until the main offices were restored. One firm that I coached was particularly successful after a catastrophic emergency. It actually had weekly meetings at each of its offices, created telephone trees, made sure that everyone knew how to reach everyone else, used technology to reach the main server, and obtained continuances for filing, trial, etc.

In one firm that I advised, the local office administrator was promoted to the position of person in charge of its national disaster recovery plan. No one in any of the firm's offices was as good as she was in dealing with such issues.

Success in the face of catastrophe will happen only if the firm has plans in place to take care of its clients by carrying on business, and to take care of its employees by establishing an employee assistance fund.

Issues involving emergencies are not so much about insurance — that is only a part of it. The people are the real issue: from survival to recovery and from recovery to continuity.

Edward Poll is the principal of LawBiz Management. He coaches lawyers and is the creator of "Life After Law," a program that helps attorneys plan for profitable exits. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com.

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