Preparing Your Law Firm for Disaster

On December 26, 2004, the ocean floor ruptured beneath the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

It was the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. It had the longest duration of faulting ever observed. It lasted between 8.3 and 10 minutes.

The people on the beach didn’t recognize the disaster as it was happening. In fact, some thought the fish left on the beach by the receding water–just before a monstrous wave came through–were a gift from god.

What happened next could not have been worse.

The resulting tsunami killed between 230,000 and 280,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

The wave washed whole families away. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded human history.

I spent the past five months in those four countries. I walked and drove by more memorials and graves than I can count.

When I sat on the beach in Sri Lanka with my wife and one of our children on December 26, 2017, it was impossible not to think about disasters.

Many people had been in that exact spot 14 years early. As we walked down the beach, we passed their graves.

Disasters strike unexpectedly. They are unpredictable.

Yet they occur with some frequency. It’s wise to assume disaster will strike at some point. It might happen soon. It might be devastating. It’s better to be prepared.

Had the people in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India been prepared, there would have been more of them on the beach with me this past December.

Are you ready for disaster?

I talk endlessly about systems. Many of us have done a pretty good job of documenting our procedures, but only for normal days.

We don’t, however, consistently document systems for terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days.

Our systems are valuable on a typical day, but when the going gets tough, a disaster system can literally save the day.

On days when everything goes wrong, there’s no time to ask a question, look it up, or figure it out. When the waves of disaster crash around us, we need systems that tell us what to do based on plans made before the stress of the situation took over.

When the water level rises, or the winds howl, you simply turn to the ready-made checklist and start executing. You don’t need to panic because you mapped out the whole plan (the right things in the right order with the right people) when things were calm and under control.

Disaster preparation minimizes the disruption to your business. It puts you back in control when unfortunate circumstances occur around you.

You need a system for handling disasters because one will strike eventually. It’s hard to say when, but the types of disasters that impact law firms are fairly predictable.

Here are some of the types of disasters you might encounter.

1. Flood, Fire, Earthquake

I once watched the smoke rise as a lawyer’s office in Raleigh burned down.

The firm had purchased an old Southern mansion and spent years rehabilitating and decorating it. It was gone in an hour, along with all of the computers, paper files, books, records, and everything else.

We have Rosen Institute members in Houston. They survived the recent hurricane and then got walloped by the flooding.

Hurricanes, tornados, floods, fires, and even earthquakes strike with some frequency. There’s always a law firm caught in the mix.

The disaster makes the news for a cycle, but when it’s gone there are still lawyers on the scene sorting out the remains of their business.

The disaster’s impact goes beyond the damage to the firm’s physical presence. The firm’s employees struggle with their own hardships and injuries. They might be unable to help repair the business because they’re so busy repairing their lives.

2. Sabotage

Employees go berserk sometimes.

It might be subtle and hard to detect, like when an employee maliciously alters a record. Or it might be exceedingly obvious, like when an employee wipes out your data and backups. Or it might be horrific, like when an employee comes in shooting with a high-powered rifle over some perceived slight.

Theft is more common. Employees steal from the firm, robbing you of the cash you need to meet your immediate obligations. Suddenly the employee is gone and so are the week’s payroll funds.

A law firm that hesitates to trust its employees struggles to get the work done. It’s necessary to give employees access to data, finances, and the office space, but sometimes that trust comes back to bite the firm when the employee has mental health or other issues.

3. Epidemic/Outbreak

SARS. Bird flu. Ebola. Zika. My wife is oddly obsessed with epidemiology, so I hear more about the spread of pandemic diseases than I should.

Crazy though she may be, she’s on target with the possibility of disease causing disruption to our practices. It could be something as ordinary as a bad flu season, or it could be something much more dramatic. Either way, it makes sense to be prepared.

4. Health crisis of the owner

One Rosen Institute member was out for six weeks recently. His business thrived. I think he’s now wondering if he should leave more often.

I was out after coronary bypass surgery for nearly two months. That was an experience I’d rather not repeat.

Of all the disaster possibilities, a health crisis might be most likely. It doesn’t have to be illness or disease. It could simply be a parasailing or base-jumping accident (you crazy daredevil).

5. Power outage

It’s not just conspiracy theorists who believe the power grid is vulnerable. Ted Koppel, in Lights Out, explains the likelihood of these attacks on major economies. Ukraine has already suffered these attacks.

It doesn’t have to be an attack that turns the power off. Sometimes the lights just go out. Something as benign as an ice storm or a car hitting a light pole can shut your power down for 48 hours. It happens.

6. Data loss and hacking

Data loss happens to the best of us.

Sometimes it’s the vendor’s fault. Sometimes it’s an employee mistake. Sometimes it’s as simple as an accidental click of the “delete” button or a failure to pay the data storage vendor. It happens.

Hacking, of course, is also a very real possibility. Every week we hear about another company getting hacked.

Is your data system vulnerable? Hopefully it’s protected by smart, capable engineers. But some lawyers keep data on local servers serviced by amateur technicians.

The legal and public relations fallout of exposing data is significant. This happens to law firms frequently, so you should anticipate this kind of disaster, especially if you handle high profile matters.

But hacking isn’t just a problem faced by the high profile firms who handle sensitive matters. What’s the plan if your data is hijacked and held for ransom? It happens all the time.

7. Loss of a key employee

You pissed her off with a sarcastic remark, so she left for lunch and never returned.

(Okay, okay, that wasn’t you. It was me.)

Employees leave for various reasons. In 30 years, I had five sudden, unexpected employee departures.

Inevitably, your employees leave you with a knowledge gap. They know things you need to know in order to be able to deal with ongoing work. They know little things like whether that letter was mailed and where the mailbox key is hidden. Or they might know big things, like everything there is to know about tomorrow’s trial.

8. Malpractice

I did this once. (Well, probably more than once.) I committed malpractice in a very visible way.

Thankfully my malpractice carrier fixed the disaster. My client wasn’t harmed, I paid my deductible, and I was permitted to go back to work so I could screw up some more.

But the entire episode was surreal. My brain was foggy. I wasn’t thinking clearly because of the panic. This kind of disaster also requires a plan. Whom do we call? What do we say? How do we proceed?

9. More disasters than you can imagine

I’ve mentioned eight disasters you might reasonably anticipate, but there are lots more.

Thinking about disasters might cause you to lose sleep, but sleepless nights might be worth it if they prompt you to spend some time preparing.

What else could happen to you and your law firm?

Wildfires, volcanoes, lightning strikes, and power plant accidents are possibilities.

Of course, landslides, explosions, and terrorist attacks could occur.

Bioterrorism is a thing. So is hazardous material leakage from trains, trucks, and storage facilities.

Enough?

You need a preparedness plan

Hopefully you’re good and worked up now.

Fear is good if it happens before the disaster. The anxiety you feel will get you moving. It’ll motivate you to put the disaster plan higher on your task list.

Here’s what you need to do before disaster strikes:

1. Create a plan

During a disaster, you operate under a cloud of stress and panic, so you need to have a plan in place before calamity occurs.

Your disaster plan is just another system like everything else you’ve documented. (If you haven’t already created documented systems then take our systems course, please.)

Write it all down and save it somewhere that will be accessible after the disaster strikes.

Identify vendors and resources in advance. Some law firms have backup space arranged in nearby cities or in buildings in the same city but far from the primary space. Some firms coordinate with each other, in advance, to step in when any firms in the group have an emergency.

Knowledge is power in an emergency. Build your systems to anticipate problems and minimize disruption to your business.

2. Engage the entire team

Involve everyone on your team in disaster preparation. This is a team sport.

Some firms conduct an exercise every other year to coordinate the disaster preparedness plan. They discuss the plan and drill down into each person’s role so everyone’s job is documented and understood by the rest of the team.

Getting everyone engaged makes it easier for each team member to understand their part of the process when disaster strikes. By engaging everyone, in advance, you create buy-in so the team can jump into action when required.

3. Anticipate communication loss

If your phone system goes down, do you have mobile devices ready? Can you redirect the main phone system to the mobile devices?

If one mobile carrier is down, do you have access to a secondary carrier? Can your laptops tether off the mobile devices?

Does the phone system automatically rollover to the backup devices? Do you have access to a secondary phone system like Skype? Does each employee have an account? Is group chatting enabled? Has the system been tested?

What if voice or data communication is unavailable? Do key team members have satellite backups?

How will your team coordinate? Will there be a meeting plan? What’s the time? Location?

How will you proceed to urgent matters and deadlines? What if the disaster shuts down courts in your county, but not courts in the adjacent county where you have pending matters? How will you coordinate and respond?

Take it further and anticipate a communication gap with your clients. How will you alert clients if a disaster strikes? What if the disaster causes a data breach and you lose access to client email addresses and phone numbers? What’s the plan?

4. Hardware plan

Is most of your computer gear housed in the office building? What if the office is inaccessible?

Do you have backup hardware? Can any home computers or mobile devices be used to fill the gap? Do you have extra devices strategically stored outside of your office?

5. Data backups

Where is the data backup? What about the data on the office server? Will it be accessible remotely? What if the power is down in the building? Is there a remote backup online? Is there a physical copy of the data?

Maybe you were smart enough to move to a cloud-based practice management system. But if your cloud provider goes down, will you be out of business? Or do you have a backup plan for that contingency? What does the vendor suggest? What if the vendor disappears?

Most importantly, does your data backup plan actually work?

Have you tested the backup data? I’ve witnessed multiple instances of the backup data being non-functional and nobody realizing it didn’t work until the disaster struck.

6. Insurance coverage

You can cover yourself for most disasters, but you have to buy the coverage in advance.

Do you have the right coverage? Or will a disaster put you out of business?

When disaster strikes, whom will you call? What’s the number? What if the disaster affects their office too?

Can you get cash quickly? Can you pay out of your pocket and get reimbursed later? What if you don’t have the cash for that? Where is the written policy stored?

7. Drills

The building where our primary office was located had a fire alarm test every month.

It was great for building a referral network with the other tenants (because we all stood in the parking deck chatting while we were out of the building), but the frequent fire drills sometimes interfered with work.

Nevertheless, drills can be useful.

Consider having everyone work from home as a test of your remote communication and technology tools. Use vacations and holidays as tests to see if the business can function without key employees. Update and test your backup data and hardware.

Unfortunately, shootings occur with increasing frequency in some places. You might want to drill for these situations as well.

8. You are not alone

There are resources available to help. They’re full of ideas for steps you might include in your plans.

FEMA (the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency) and SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) have helpful resources.

But there’s no resource more valuable in a disaster than friends.

Build relationships with your law firm peers around your county, state, and country. Having a reciprocal relationship with a firm a few hundred miles from your location can save your business.

Knowing that another firm can jump in with human, technological, and financial resources when a disaster strikes is reassuring. These types of relationships can make the difference between survival and defeat, but you have to form them in advance.

Think ahead

The key to disaster preparedness is thinking ahead.

It’s weird to spend your time contemplating terrible things that might never happen, but it’s helpful to anticipate events before they occur.

Disasters are generally predictable. It’s just difficult to get the timing right. You don’t need to know when it’s coming as long as you’re prepared for it when it finally happens.

Don’t let disaster preparation dominate your thinking and planning, but make it a small part of your systems-building.

It’s sad to contemplate, but if those folks along the coast of the Indian Ocean had understood why the ocean suddenly receded, they would have reacted differently. They had no idea what was coming because they hadn’t prepared or practiced for disaster.

You and your team have the opportunity–NOW–to prepare for whatever might come. Take advantage of this moment to get your team ready.

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