Don't get snowed-in by everyday disasters

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Published on 6/11/07

When I began these columns in the fall of 2005, the Hurricane Katrina disaster was still uppermost in our minds.

One of my first efforts was on disaster recovery, and carried this message: "Disaster for any law firm is not a question of "if," but rather of "when." The only unknowns are the type of disaster, when it will occur and how bad it will be."

Typically, we define disasters as major events — Katrina, 9/11, "the big one" (as Californians refer to the next great earthquake).

In reality, for a law firm, a disaster is any event that temporarily halts the firm's ability to fulfill the reason for its existence: serving clients. It's in that sense that disaster is as inevitable and as disruptive as a New England snowstorm. And it's in that sense that every firm must plan.

Consider the disruption that a snowstorm causes. Getting to work by car may not be possible. Public transit will be snarled. Schools will be closed and parents will face the resulting dilemma of whether to stay home and care for children. Power may be out, crippling the use of email.

Such problems are inevitable, so if you don't have formal responses planned start now:

  • Define your employee policies for weather-related absences — when and how often they can be out, whether vacation days must be used, what kind of notice should be given.
  • Identify temporary staffing agencies in the city or remote virtual assistant services that can provide clerical support when regular employees can't.
  • Have a call-in number established where employees can check for messages on the firm's status or leave emergency messages. The country's biggest law firm, Skadden Arps, has such a number posted on its web site for use "in the event a sudden and prolonged crisis disables our normal systems."
  • Use lawyer and staff telecommuters as remote resources in case the office is closed.

When establishing contingencies, look at each practice area in the firm separately. Ask how long it can afford to be "out of business" and what resources it needs to get up and running. Take account of the risk scenarios of each practice area.

Transactional lawyers often have timeframes that are measured in hours. Litigators' timeframes may run from the few hours needed to secure a temporary restraining order, to the years that bet-the-company disputes require. Lawyers focusing on intellectual property or taxation will have similarly varied timeframes.

It is a simple fact that, just as all business challenges evolve over time, so too should our definition of disaster.

Ten years ago, it is doubtful that cyber-crimes, terrorist attacks or avian flu would have made any list of law firm disaster worries; today they are at the forefront.

Successful disaster recovery planning starts when you not only understand the threats you face, but also realize that your ultimate goal is to plan so that you remain functional — no matter what threat or disaster you may encounter.

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