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Preparing for Disaster – Is Your Law Firm Ready?

You've always gotten by. That's why you're pretty sure nothing terrible will happen to your law practice. If the floodwaters quickly rise, you'll have the presence of mind to grab your laptop and hightail it to the comfort of a nearby Starbucks.

But sometimes something totally unexpected happens. Every day there are news reports of cyber attacks, data breaches, and natural disasters including hurricanes, mudslides and earthquakes. And no office is immune from mundane crises such as mold or electrical issues. Sometimes the unexpected event may be the untimely death of a key law partner.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you're considering putting together a disaster recovery plan.

What are Your Potential Risks?

Although there is no magic crystal ball, it's useful to ponder the types of risks your firm might face, given its geographic location, type of practice or other factors. An overriding concern should be: how will you fulfill your ethical obligations to clients? To a client, a natural or human-made disaster will not necessarily excuse a failure to meet court deadlines, communicate with the client, or maintain client confidentiality. Nor can you count on a state bar to excuse such lapses. This is one reason to take disaster planning seriously.

What Features Should a Disaster Recovery Plan Have?

Organizations such as the American Bar Association and some state bars have published detailed advice for creating a disaster recovery plan, which is sometimes called a disaster readiness plan or a business continuity plan. So have FEMA and others. Generally, experts recommend creating simple checklists and step-by-step directions to guide you through perilous situations. Having clear instructions means you won't have to figure out everything during the crisis itself.

Of course, having a disaster plan won't help if the lights go out and no one can locate a copy of the document. Therefore, key players at your firm should have copies, preferably in paper form too.

An essential feature of any disaster plan is having a robust offsite backup system to safeguard your files. Specialized vendors have sprung up that offer disaster readiness services to law firms and other businesses. Emergency management consultants are also available for hire.

Who Will Be in Charge During a Disaster?

Just as ships rely on captains during a storm, disaster plans often name a specific person to lead the recovery effort. However, he or she won't be able to handle everything alone, so it's common to designate a disaster response team. Members of the team, listed by name, can be assigned specific responsibilities.

The plan ought to also list alternates, who will step in if the response team leader or a member of the team can't perform the assigned role.

What are Some Specific Disaster Response Tasks?

Although every crisis is different, some of the crucial tasks that are needed in most disasters include:

  • Evaluating the situation and extent of damages;
  • Updating the firm's website and recorded telephone messages;
  • Sending out global emails to clients;
  • Notifying the courts, if warranted;
  • Developing a public relations strategy;
  • Restoring systems including hardware and software; and
  • Arranging for a temporary worksite, if necessary.

Will Your Law Firm Have an Alternate Site?

If your office building is destroyed in a fire, where will your attorneys, paralegals and other staff members do their work? Some law firms prudently plan for such scenarios by establishing an alternate worksite. One common sense way to do this is by partnering with another law firm to provide physical space to one another in the event of a disaster impacting either. Of course, the disaster recovery plan should include the other law firm's address.

As another alternative, you can structure your office to allow for remote access so your staff can still login and access files in order to get their work completed, but there are also important steps to take when managing virtual access to your law firm to ensure that you're meeting your ethical obligations.

How Often Will You Update and Test Your Plan?

It's not enough to circulate a disaster recovery plan and never give it another thought. Because your personnel will change over time, the names of your response team members and alternates will too. You also may need to update the disaster plan to account for ever-advancing office software, hardware and other systems, or for other reasons.

Experts also recommend running simulations, so you and your staff can practice handling a disaster and identify any weaknesses in your plan. Simulations can also help your staff to understand their roles and responsibilities during a disaster.

Protecting Your Practice Also Means Growing Your Client Base

Hopefully disaster will never strike you, your loved ones, or your practice, but it's always important to plan for the worst. However, it's also important to plan for your firm's growth and the good news is that FindLaw's Integrated Marketing Solutions can help. Reach out to us today to learn more about how you can create a comprehensive plan to target your market audience and keep your business flowing.

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