Disaster Planning and Business Continuity

Effective disaster planning dictates whether your office will survive a disaster. Keep in mind that during a disaster, natural or otherwise, a lawyer’s professional and ethical obligations are not suspended.

A destructive hurricane is certainly an example of a potentially business ending event.  However, the mundane (and more common) event, such as an employee termination gone awry or a computer malfunction (virus or other technology issues) can also wreak havoc on a law office.  Other examples of business interrupting events might include illness or disability on your part or on the part of a key member of your office; theft or burglary; workplace violence; sudden staff changes; and trust fund theft.

LSBA Disaster Planning Handbook

Start your disaster planning by taking a few moments to think about your office’s ability to survive these common “disaster” scenarios. It is in your and your clients’ best interest to have in place a basic disaster plan.  Regardless of your firm size or practice, an easy to implement plan will assist you, or anyone in your office, in the event of an unexpected practice interruption. The LSBA Disaster Planning Handbook has additional information, checklists and resources

Get the LSBA Disaster Planning Handbook

Before the Disaster: Disaster Plan Basics
As a disaster can take many forms, so can a disaster plan.  You cannot anticipate everything, but a little preparation ahead of the disaster will save you a lot of time. Best advice:  Keep it simple and be redundant in the way you keep basic firm information. The more complicated the plan, the more likely that it will not be implemented.  Place important information in several safe places, both electronically and in hard copy.  Redundancy increases the chances that the information will be accessible when needed.

An effective disaster plan accounts for these two challenges: interrupted access to your client’s data and/or a power or communication outage.

The elements of a basic disaster plan are the following:

These “no tech” solutions address the need for basic office information in the event of a power outage and/or when electronic access to your data is not possible.

Small Three Ring Disaster Binder
The Disaster Binder should contain hard copies of the following items (reviewed yearly):
  1. Staff Contact List: Create a printed list of staff contact information including alternative email addresses, emergency contact information, and a possible location that each may go if evacuating.
  2. Client and Opposing Contact List: Create a printed list your clients and opposing counsel, along with contact information including email addresses.
  3. Directory File List: Print a list of your directory files on your computer system or in the cloud.
  4. Trust Accounts/Other Account, Bank and Bank Contact Information
  5. Copy of Insurance Policies
  6. Inventory of Office Equipment & Furnishings and Photos
  7. Copies of Software Licenses/Installation Disks
  8. Important Passwords: Firm social media and website passwords, bank account passwords, internet accounts, etc.
  9. Vendor and Supplier Contact Information
  10. Cell Phone Charger (include a solar cell phone charger).

Make electronic copies of the binder’s contents in several places as follows:

  • Email contents as attachment to yourself and someone else you trust in another area from you; 
  • Flash/Thumb drive (you can keep in your wallet or key chain);
  • Electronic tablets (e.g., iPad);
  • C Drive of your desk or laptop;
  • Directory on your local server; and/or
  • A secure cloud provider (Dropbox, and others).

**Provide an electronic and hard copy of the binder’s contents to another responsible person (i.e., a key staff member or partner).

Laminated Office Contact Wallet Card
Create a simple, credit card size card with vital key contact information. Laminate the card and keep in your wallet with your driver’s license. One side of the card might contain key staff member contact information and the other side could be court contact information and community emergency numbers. Give a copy of this card to all staff.
Create a list of possible temporary office relocations should a disaster occur requiring a temporary move. You might talk to a colleague about having a reciprocal agreement that either could use the other’s office temporarily in the event of a disaster. Your alternative place to work might include your home or someone else’s home. Inform staff ahead of time of these potential places. In the event of area power outage, these potential relocation spots, if known ahead of time, will also optimize your chances of finding your staff.
Communication is often the first to go in a disaster. Create a default plan on what to do if you cannot communicate with each other.

  • Be able, or have someone on staff able, to post remotely critical firm information on your firm website, email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or other social media;
  • Create a simple post-disaster default message for these sites that informs clients and staff of alternative methods of reaching and finding you; and
  • Ensure that all important cell phone numbers and email addresses are stored on each other’s cell phones.

After a disaster strikes, use all communication tools early and often. Do not assume what communication issues your target audience is having. Be prepared to send the same message different ways to optimize the chances that your intended recipient will receive it.

Additional tips:

  • Investigate supplementary forms of communication (for example: Skype, Google voice, social media, and other electronic chat formats). Many are free.
  • If you have a traditional telephone company landline, have a plain, noncordless phone which connects directly into the phone line. When the power goes down, traditional phone lines often remain functional.
  • In extremis situations, the Red Cross will have satellite phones and will allow you to place a call or two.
  • Check your bar association for communication tools. During Katrina, the LSBA set up an open forum where individuals could post temporary location information and contact information. Other local bar associations are set up to respond similarly in a disaster.
Back up your client files and test your backup periodically. Your backup method will depend on how you keep client files. Some lawyers are paper only, while others are nearly totally electronic. The vast majority is a blend of both. Backup methods favor the lawyer who digitizes data. Lawyers should consider at least digitizing active files.

If not digitizing complete files, identify vital client records and other data that are essential for your business to continue operating. Use a small desktop scanner to scan these documents, and store copies off-site. At the very least, if you are storing paper files in your office, put them in a file cabinet away from areas that potentially could suffer water damage.

There are several easy electronic backup methods, and most are quite easy and inexpensive to do.
The top methods used by lawyers are the following:

Simple External Hard Drive
Favored by the solo and small firm practitioner, this method is simple to use, easy to carry and inexpensive. A disadvantage is that if the device is left at the office and/or the lawyer is prevented from getting to the office, the backup won’t be available. Additionally, lawyers relying on this option often depend on only themselves to remember to do the backing up.

Offsite Storage
Many large firms back data on tapes and then store them securely offsite in a safe place like a bank, storage facility, or firm administrator’s home. A disadvantage is that backed up data kept offsite is not always current.

Online Cloud Storage
An increasing popular method, secure cloud storage providers offer cost-effective backup, either in real time or at set times that you choose (e.g., at the end of the day or twice a day). A good provider will have planned internally for their own disaster by making sure that they have multiple storage sites for their customer’s data – all maximizing your being able to get at your data when you need it. Research your provider before choosing. These services are very easy to use and backup can be scheduled so that it need not depend your remembering to do so. Further, you can access your data anywhere there is internet access. Most cloud providers offer this as a subscription service with cost depending on the amount of data stored. (Carbonite, Mozy are two examples of online data storage providers

Personal or Private Cloud
A relatively new technology, lawyers not wanting a online cloud arrangement can create relatively inexpensively their own cloud. If you share files, work remotely often, and do not have a server for your firm, this could be a relatively inexpensive way to set up remote file storage, sync, and sharing. Such a device would allow you to access your documents from any device and collaborate with clients and colleagues while staying in control of your data. (Transporter is an example. Go here for a comprehensive review.).

Other Methods
Data can also be backed up to a network server, tape and even USB thumb drives and CDs. These methods are inexpensive and very easy to implement. A disadvantage is that these items are fragile, easily lost, and depend largely on your remembering to do the backup. Keep in mind that a disaster may cause you to move around frequently, and risk damaging or losing these items.

Optimally, lawyers are storing and encrypting securely their client data and files, online and offline, in many different ways, and backing up in real time or at least once a day.

Ensure that your backup method is secure. Consider whether encrypting the data will be useful to you.
In major disasters, local ATMs do not work and local banks are not open. Have cash ready to sustain you for at least a month. Establish an emergency line of credit.
Know what your policy covers. Does your policy cover building contents as well as the structure? Do you have coverage for business interruption and extra expenses?
If the disaster affects an entire region, you will not be an effective steward of your client’s information and matters unless your family is safe. You will not be at your best in putting your office back together again unless and until your family is safe. Give some thought as to how you and your family might respond in the case of a regional disaster. Keep in mind the type of accommodations that you might need if your family has to evacuate. Consider pets or elderly members of your family who might need to accompany you.

A family plan also might include important family information in a similar hard-copy binder as the one previously described for your office where you keep essential important papers, passwords, and contact information. As with the binder for your office, scan your family plan binder’s contents and save electronic copies in several places.
After the Disaster: Additional Resources
So the disaster has occurred, and you have a basic disaster plan.

Here's what to do now:

  • Attend to your family. If necessary, take care of your family and yourself first. If your family and loved ones are not safe, you will not be useful to your firm, your staff or your clients. Encourage your partners and your staff to take of their own families as well.
  • Keep a level head. Everything goes wrong all at once during a disaster, if it is big enough, and everyone will be at wit’s end. With a basic disaster plan binder and with your family safe and sound, you can be the level head to handle the next step.
  • Triage your issues and resolve the one having the biggest impact. Re-establishing communications with your clients and staff is most likely going to be your biggest and most important beginning task towards recovery.
  • Implement your communication plan
  •  #131 Law Office Policy and Procedures Manual (Revised and Updated Sixth Ed. 2011)
    Howard L. Hatoff and Robert C. Wert
  •  #154 Locked Down: Information Security for Lawyers (2012)
    Sharon D. Nelson, David G. Ries, and John W. Simek
Louisiana State Bar Association
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