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Can Your Firm Survive A Disaster?

The news images are shocking. Whether it is tornado damage in the mid-west or flooding after a hurricane in eastern North Carolina, disasters can strike at any time and can come in many different forms. Hurricanes come with advanced warning allowing time to prepare; others happen so quickly they are over before you have time to think. No matter what type of disaster you face, careful planning can make surviving more likely.

Designate a Leader

If a disaster strikes, someone will have to be in charge and capable of making decisions. In some circumstances, decision making includes procuring new equipment or finding new or temporary office space. It is important that this individual has the authority to make these decisions without the approval of a committee so that the firm can move more quickly toward regular operations.

Assess Your Risk

The first step in planning for disaster is to determine the vulnerabilities of your office. Evaluate your building security and your office environment to determine any potential problems. The object is to identify issues that could cause a disaster or make a situation worse. For example, would a sprinkler malfunction in your file room damage boxes on the floor or ruin files stored on top of filing cabinets?

Develop a Plan

Once you have determined the risks in your office, develop a plan for how a disaster should be handled. Your disaster plan should include how to handle a disaster in progress, the steps to take immediately afterwards and rebuilding procedures.

First and foremost, plan for personal safety and evacuation when needed. Assign someone responsibility for escorting guests out of the building. Consider the needs of anyone who may need assistance in the event of an emergency. Designate a safe meeting place so that everyone can be accounted for after evacuation.

The second piece of a disaster plan is protecting your physical assets. The best protection is adequate insurance, which should be reviewed annually. Make a list of all assets, including serial number and vendor contact information. To ensure you do not overlook items, video or photo your office. Open drawers and capture content as well. The images will capture items you may overlook.

Of course, protecting your client files is of major concern. Fire proof and water proof filing cabinets should be used to ensure that files are protected. Scanning documents into your database will provide a method of easily duplicating a file should one be destroyed. Assess the best method for protecting client property and original documents, as sometimes these may need to be stored in a bank safety deposit box for optimal security.

Once you have developed your plan, you have to be sure it's accessible once a disaster strikes. Store a copy, along with your inventory documentation, off-site and maintain a copy within the office as well. Because personnel and equipment changes happen so frequently be sure to update your plan so that it will be accurate should it ever be needed.

Here are some steps to take to prevent or lessen the impact of the typical forms of law firm disasters:

  1. Computers and Electronic Information
    1. Physically protect firm equipment with surge protectors and backup batteries.
    2. Anticipate hardware and software failures: replace old computers and install software repairs and upgrades as they are released.
    3. Anticipate system overload and monitor system usage.
    4. Anticipate that data may be lost and locate (in advance) a specialist that can help restore any lost information.
    5. Protect individual computers and systems by limiting the type and volume of information stored on laptops, by using anti-theft software, and by using "strong" passwords.
    6. Initiate and use a system that backs-up all firm computer data and programs and store all back-ups offsite.
    7. Be careful where any sensitive data is stored, especially on a portable device such as laptop or smartphone.
  2. Loss of a Key Employee
    1. Create a firm manual that describes in detail all firm procedures.
    2. Store computer and email passwords in safe locations but ones that can be accessed if an employee leaves.
    3. Create multiple levels of review for all bank and other accounts.
    4. Create and use a firm wide calendar.
  3. Loss of an Attorney
    1. Follow all the preparation steps outlined in Item 2 above.
    2. Locate and designate another attorney to replace the attorney who becomes disabled or dies.
    3. If the attorney is a sole practitioner, have someone designated to step in and help the staff or family wind down the practice. See the "Winding Down a Practice" risk management resource on our website.
    4. Have procedures in place that will allow for a rapid review of firm files by the designated, substitute attorney.
  4. Fires and Natural Disasters
    1. Prepare a personal data listing and keep it in a safe location.
    2. Advise the attorney's spouse of any plan (especially as to a sole practitioner) and make sure the plan fits with the estate plan.
    3. Prepare a Disaster Recovery Plan for the firm that includes a physical inventory of assets, safeguards important client and firm documents (including insurance policies), designates a specific attorney to oversee implementation of Recovery Plan, establishes alternative offices with equipment and communications, has alternative supplies available (including firm checks).
    4. Implement the Recovery Plan giving due consideration to the scope of the disaster; review actions taken to ensure that all parts of the Plan have been completed.

Lawyers Mutual hopes that you never have to face a disaster, but we're here for advice if you need us. And to ensure that you have adequate business coverage for your office, contact Adam Pierce with Lawyers Insurance at 800.662.8843.

Disaster Planning Resources:

  1. Preparing for the Unexpected: Anticipate and Plan for Law Office Disasters by Alabama State Bar Association
  2. Disaster Recovery Information List by Alabama State Bar Association 
  3. Sample Safety and Security Procedures for Law Office Policies and Procedures Manual by Alabama State Bar Association
  4. Setting Up a Disaster Preparation, Protection and Recovery Program for Your Law Firm by the Law Office Management Assistance Service of the Florida State Bar 
  5. What Lawyers Should Do After a Hurricane by the Law Office Management Assistance Service of the Florida State Bar 
  6. Disaster Planning: Protecting Your Firm, Your Clients and Your Family by Maryland State Bar Association 
  7. Are You Prepared for a Real Disaster? By Oklahoma Bar Association 
  8. After Disaster Strikes: A Checklist by the Oregon Professional Liability Fund 
  9. Practice Interruptions Booklet by Practice Pro of Ontario 
  10. Disaster Recovery: Steps to take in the Recovery Effort by the Tennessee State Bar
  11. Planning for Disaster Prevention and/or Recovery by the Texas State Bar 
  12. When Bad Things Happen: 60 Minutes to Save Your Practice by the Texas State Bar 
  13. Disaster Recovery for Law Firms (excerpt from The Essential Formbook: Comprehensive Management Tools for Lawyers, Volume IV by the ABA)
  14. ABA Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness website

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