Disaster Planning for Your Law Practice

Hurricane Sandy’s destructive aftermath is a sober reminder of how disasters can hit us at any time, significantly alter our daily routines, and at its worst, take away loved ones. Yet, disasters can appear in many forms and not just from Mother Nature. Consider a pipe bursting and causing flood damage? Or an adjacent fire that spreads to your office? Or a gas leak that cuts off access to your office for hours, or even days. Imagine the worst-case scenario.

Read about the troubles some attorneys have had as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

The issue of a natural or man-made disaster is not if it will occur, but when it will occur. How will your organization respond? How prepared are you to manage your law practice after a disaster?

A great place to start is with the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA provides a seven-minute video Surviving a Disaster, Are you Prepared which contains useful anecdotes and tips. The video informs us, according to FEMA, that a natural disaster occurs in the U.S. once a week.

One study from the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that most businesses that have experienced a major disaster are out of business within five years after the disaster. In that same study, most business failed to have a disaster preparedness plan. A disaster preparedness plan should address protocols to preserve people and property, as well as a way for you to continue practice with as minimal an impact as possible (i.e.: a business continuity plan). Your clients and staff depend on you. In our article today, we’ll provide some practice tips and resources to get you started.

Insurance

In addition to general liability and malpractice insurance, it may be helpful for practitioners to investigate cybersecurity insurance as well as business interruption insurance.

Access to Client Files

What happens in the event your building is closed or destroyed and you no longer can physically access client files or your office computers? Or you have no way of traveling to your office because the roads have been blocked or there is no availability of gasoline? How can you satisfy your professional duty to competently represent your clients? For many practitioners, including non-profits, going “paperless” has been a concerted strategy to reduce supply costs as well as increase remote file accessibility for staff and clients.

In fact, it’s been one of the major reasons why immigration practitioners have opted to migrate their caseload to an online case management software so that client files can be accessible online anywhere at any time. In fact, Camille J. Mackler of the Law Office of Camille J. Mackler in New York City shared with us her experience accessing client files remotely right after Hurricane Sandy had hit when the building where her office was located was closed for a week:

I could send emails to my mailing list of clients (which is managed from a website) updating them about my office’s situation. Even at home I was able to work on a lot of files…. When I was somewhere with internet connectivity, I could better answer [client] questions because I could log on to LawLogix and see what exactly had been done on their case, look up tracking number for mailing packages, etc. And of course, [clients] could always log in to see the status of their case on their own if they were still in a place with power and internet.

Retaining Client Documents

One of the best practices many immigration practitioners have adopted is to avoid retaining a client’s original documents (when possible). Whenever clients present originals, a good practice to adopt is to immediately scan or copy the document for the client’s file and return the original to the client during the same visit. Where originals must be kept, the original document is kept inside a flood-and-fire-proof safe.

Redundancies

Having redundant back-ups in multiple locations is a critical component to ensuring client files and data has been preserved appropriately, especially for small firms or organizations. There are many ways to back-up date: via multiple servers, FTPs, or software as a service (SaaS) system. Practitioners who have already migrated their case management to a robust immigration software like EDGE already receive the benefit of multiple redundancy back-ups.

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What other methods have you adopted to ensure preparedness for a disaster? Please send us your comments. Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share it with a colleague. It may help them get started for their disaster preparedness planning.

Additional Reading Resources The Ethical Duties of Disaster Preparation by Carol M. Langford (2006) Preparing for the Unexpected: Anticipate and Plan for Law Office Disasters by Laura A. Calloway and the Alabama Bar Association (2012) Preparing for a Disaster by Kelly-Ann F. Clarke (2012)