Repairing from a disaster is different than preparing for a disaster

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Published on 9/26/05

"Disaster" aptly describes Hurricane Katrina's impact on the law firms of New Orleans. Up to 6,000 lawyers (one-third of Louisiana's total) lost their offices, libraries, computers, furnishings, equipment, client files -- and quite possibly their clients.

"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. Whether it's a hurricane or earthquake, a fire or a burst water pipe, the real issue goes beyond disaster planning -- it's making a recovery that ensures the survival of the firm.

One of the primary ingredients to disaster repair is communication with associate lawyers and with staff. Don't forget vendors and clients and the courts, and others who make your business work.

Assign one person to contact clients and vendors, to tell them what has happened and explain the status of their pending matters. Be truthful and credible, convey that the crisis is being handled properly, and that the firm will do its best to take care of needs and concerns.

A good communications system must be in place before the disaster occurs. Establish a "phone-tree." Facilitate calls by setting up an out-of-area contact. Store phone lists in multiple off-site, accessible locations. Make sure key personnel have ready access to cell phones.

After a disaster, the focus has to be on re-establishing lines of communication. Technology can be best used for the day-in, day-out effort to find phone numbers and other contact information to determine if your people are still there, OK and not victims of the disaster.

Beyond this, disaster recovery truly means starting the law practice all over again. In a disaster like Katrina it may have to be in a completely different geographic area, because the local vendors you need (phone companies, landlords for office space, local technology consultants) will themselves be going through the same process of reestablishing their businesses.

Relocation creates an entirely new list of organizations to deal with. Financial institutions and insurance carriers, bar associations and courts, vendors and suppliers, utilities, Internet service providers, legal specialists like Lexis and WestLaw all have a role in re-establishing your practice.

Returning to business as usual after a disaster also involves a host of practical issues. To resolve or move along all current cases or work-in-progress you may need to get a continuance or reschedule a deposition. You might want to refer some or all cases to another lawyer or firm.

You will undoubtedly need to disburse funds for rent, payroll, insurance settlements, new office arrangements, supplies and much more. That means giving top priority to the collection of existing accounts receivable and securing an emergency bank loan.

There are many good sources for guidance on re-establishing a practice; review the materials of your state bar association or the American Bar Association (General Practice Section and Law Practice Management Section) on practice startups.

Also, there are a number of consultants available who provide different skills to aid in your renewed adventure. Accepting that you will be starting from scratch is the key to successful disaster recovery.

Note: This column is being written immediately after a power outage hit the entire City of Los Angeles, once again highlighting that disaster can be as huge as Katrina and as small as an hour's disruption and total shut-down because of the loss of power. As noted above, it's not a question of if, but of when the disaster will hit you!

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