No one ever thinks it is going to happen to them. Whether it is a flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or a fire, we tend to think that these disasters happen to other people. But when it happens to you, it can be devastating to your personal and professional lives. I should know, in 2011, I lost my house and my law firm in a flood caused by Tropical Storm Lee. Luckily for me, I was into technology and had already “disaster proofed” my vibrant personal injury practice. Take this as a primer on disaster recovery based upon my own experience, what I did before the flood, and some of the things that I would have changed.
My small town knew that there was a potential for flooding, but the experts said it was going to flood lightly, maybe a foot at most. After staying up most of the night helping fill sandbags to stop some of the potential flood waters, I slept for a few hours. I woke up about 6:00 a.m. to sirens, and when I looked out onto my street, I could see water flooding into the neighborhood. I live close to my office, so I quickly packed a bag with essentials, rushed to the office, and started loading my car with the most important part of the my practice, the hard files. I had about seven minutes to accomplish all of this. By the time I was driving to high ground, the water was halfway up the side of my vehicle. I was praying that it would not stall in the water, thus losing everything inside the vehicle. All told, over 500 homes were flooded, including all of the buildings in the business district.
I was able to make it out safely, but it only took seven minutes from the first sight of water on my street to fill up my town. We did not get light flooding that morning. By the end of the day, there was 10 feet of water in my house and mostly covering the one story office building that contained my law office. It took three months to get my staff and a I back to normal. Over those three months, my staff worked from their homes (they did not live in the flooded area) and I worked out of any restaurant, hotel lobby or diner that had Wi-Fi and allowed me to set up shop there.
Prepare for Disaster
The first thing that I wish I had done before the flood was develop a plan for dealing with disasters. Even though I had a relatively small firm, I still should have had a plan written down and easily accessible. Even a simple list of things that have been pre-prioritized and thought about would have been helpful to me. But the “Disaster Plan” should and can be more comprehensive and cover everything from data protection, employee contingencies, and safety and communications to maintaining the confidentiality of your client’s information. I lived and worked in north east Pennsylvania where we do not get many natural disasters such as earthquakes or tornados or huge forest fires. Even hurricanes do not affect us very much. However, my town sits between two rivers and I should have understood at least the potential. But if your law practice is in a region that is prone to natural disasters, it is imperative to have a disaster preparedness plan.
The first step is to print and read the American Bar Association’s free paper on creating disaster recovery plans for all sizes of law firms. There may be several areas in the paper that would not apply to your firm, but it is a great, general source of what should be considered. The following are some of things you and your firm can work on before disaster strikes:
- Create a crisis response team that meets regularly. This team should be responsible for researching and writing the disaster recovery plan. The team should meet regularly to review and revise the plan based on changing environments and changing needs of the firm. As a natural disaster approaches or when one occurs unexpectedly, this team should be tasked with taking the lead and implementing the plan.
- If you know in advance of an approaching possible disaster, make sure the staff and attorneys have enough time to prepare their own homes and families for dealing with the outcome. In cases where evacuations are necessary, it can take time to figure out where to go and what items are needed for daily survival in a new area. In the rush to get out, people can forget many important things, including things as simple as making sure they have enough medication for an extended evacuation process.
- As the disaster approaches, pre-position important staff and supplies outside the area possibly affected. This will ensure the continuity of the law firm being able to continue to work on critical matters for clients during the disaster and during the recovery process. These pre-positioned supplies and staff can also be tasked to help the employees of the firm with any needs during the evacuation period. These people can also help clients with their own needs and issues during the disaster and evacuation. Just think of how much good will your firm will garner by not only helping your employees and their families, but also by offering support and guidance to the firm’s clients.
- Have critical staff people cross-trained in emergency communications and IT data safety and recovery just in case some people have lost communications or are physically prevented from performing their designated emergency preparedness tasks. Do not rely upon just one person to perform a critical task. Make sure there is someone else that can step in and is trained to take up the responsibility for a critical recovery task.
- Compile a list of contact information for every employee and every way to contact them — home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, personal emails because they may not have access to their work email. Make sure to include emergency contacts for each employee, someone that is outside of the employee’s immediate family. Make sure this list is in digital format as well as several hard copies. Because of the chance that the power will be out and that computer systems will be unreachable, make sure the paper contact list is with several different people. Again, do not allow just one person to be responsible for such a critical area. Also, think about developing a call chain so information can be dispersed throughout the firm in a quick manner.
- Engage with clients and make them part of your firm’s disaster recovery plan and process. This will let them know that you take the continuity of the firm and your representation of them very seriously. Also, it might spur your clients to start this process in their own company. Give your clients emergency contact numbers for key players in the firm so that if needed, they can contact one of their lawyers even as the emergency proceeds. Also, get emergency contact information from your clients so there can be two way communications. As always, make sure there are hard copies of this information dispersed among critical players in the firm. Do not rely upon any information kept only digitally.
- Designate a media relations person who can deal with the media about how the firm is handling the disaster and the continuity of the storm. For a position this important, make sure to have a backup media relations specialist.
The most important thing to worry about after a natural disaster is to make sure every single employee of the firm is safe and has made it out of harm’s way. Have the disaster recovery team account for everyone. Also make sure that everyone has whatever is needed to survive, either at a recovery shelter or wherever they ended up. Here are some other things to think about doing after the disaster is over and recovery begins:
- Check in with the lead person on the disaster response team to confirm that you are OK and hopefully your situation is tenable and that you do not need anything.
- Determine if any team member has special needs. Work with logistics to cover those needs, relying first upon firm employees and then, government assistance second.
- Check in with clients to determine their status and to see if the firm can help in any way possible.
- Stay in periodic communication with the staff and lawyers to give updates on the status of the law firm’s building(s) and if there is any damage that might disrupt returning back to work. Attempt to determine a “return to work” date so that employees can start to plan for that and to be able to work on any contingencies that are necessary to get back to work. Also, make sure employees understand the firm’s policy on what should happen if they cannot make it back to work on the set day. Of course, this policy may have to change based upon the emergency and the position that particular employee holds.
- If necessary, implement remote working facilities so people can get back to representing the needs of the clients, even if it is limited in ability. This will greatly increase the good will with your clients.
Help Your Local Community
Have a plan in place to help with the law firm’s local community in any way possible. Not only is this just the right thing to do, it will also generate good will from your friends and neighbors. Does your firm have generators that can be brought from neighborhood to neighborhood to keep people’s refrigerators cold? Does the firm have access to showers and running water? Do you have access to electricity so people can come in and power their cell phones? It is these small things that go a long way in an emergency.
A very helpful thing that law firms can do in an emergency is to set up pro bono clinics to help people with disaster-related legal issues. In my particular situation, despite losing my house and my law office I decided to offer a law clinic at my local FEMA relief shelter. Every night from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. I would show up and sit down with a legal pad to answer people’s questions and to possibly help them if I could. Victims of the flood had issues with FEMA relief. They had issues with property insurance. Many people had landlord/tenant issues. There were many landlords that refused to return paid rents and security deposits even though the apartments were unlivable. I helped well over 100 people over the several weeks I held the clinics.
Disaster Preparedness and Technology
One of the most important issues to deal with prior to when a disaster strikes is protecting the firm’s most valuable assets — client information, files and the firm’s own valuable and necessary documents. One of the greatest disruptions to a law firm a disaster can cause is the loss, damage or destruction of important firm documents or client files. If this is allowed to happen, it could effectively put the law firm out of business. If clients learn that your law firm did not have emergency plans in place or that it did not protect the client’s files properly, those clients would justifiably seek other counsel.
As I wrote above, I accidentally made my law firm prepared for a disaster merely because I was a tech nerd and I wanted my practice to be set up so that I could work easily from home or any place where I had an internet connection. What this meant was that I was already having my staff scan and upload every document that was generated by the firm and every document that came into the firm from the outside. Also, I had been using case management software that was “cloud-based” and not “server-based.” Therefore, when disaster stuck, l had remote access to all of my case files and all of the data kept in my case management system.
Today, with the level of technology available, there is no excuse for even one lawyer firms to not be scanning all of their documents and storing them in the cloud. Most modest printer/copiers have robust scanning ability that will be able to scan a significant volume of paper. When I had my staff start implementing the scanning of documents there was your expected groans. The main complaint would be that it would take too much time, time that could be used doing relevant work. However, the brief time that it took to scan the documents, label them and put them in the property electronic file would be made up in the time that it takes to find a specific file among a pile of others. Most document storing databases have searching ability, thus being able to call up a specific document within seconds.
Server-based v. Cloud-based
Obviously, if you want to protect the data and all the scanned documents from destruction from a natural disaster, a cloud-based solution is the best way to go. The use of servers to store the data is dangerous, particularly if that server is kept at your office. Off-site servers are an option, but again, how far off-site are they? If your law firm’s data is being stored across the city and your entire city is wrecked by a hurricane, then it does not make sense to store data in those servers.
There are many cloud-based options to store data and documents. Some basic online storage options are Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, Mega, iCloud and many more, offering various services and price ranges for the amount of storage needed. I personally used Dropbox and could not be happier with it. It was very easy to upload documents and easy to navigate. As in most of these companies, I could access every document in every file (closed or open) wherever I had access to the internet.
Cloud-based Law Practice Management Software
Just like with law firms not scanning documents, law firms that do not implement some sort of case management software are truly behind the times. This behavior can be dangerous and so it is best to examine your options. Most law practice management software has the ability to concisely and cohesively retain every bit of data about a case and can recall that data at the click of a mouse.
From keeping track of statute of limitations and calendaring of appointments and court deadlines, to tracking case trends and firm outcomes, case management software is a godsend. However, just like with physical documents, having your case management data subject to a natural disaster is dangerous. The best practice is to keep the data on the cloud where it can be accessed wherever internet is available.
How to Choose Law Practice Management Software
Many options of law practice management software exist today, offering an array of services and pricing options. Some software is practice specific, meaning that it is designed specifically to work with a particular area of legal practice — for example, personal injury law or bankruptcy. But many of them can be tailored to any kind of practice or many different practice areas at the same time, given the fact that many law firms practice more than one area of the law.
Here are some things to consider when searching for the right fit in a law practice management software:
- Whether Outlook or Gmail email will integrate with the software or whether the software will provide its own email client. The same goes for whether the software will provide its own calendaring system or can it use the Outlook or Google’s calendar systems.
- Case/matter management. This is the heart of most law practice management systems. The ability to track ever aspect of the case is basically why you are buying this type of software. However, every system is different, offering a different level of options depending upon the need and the price that you want to spend.
- Task Management. Being able to create a task list on a daily, weekly or monthly basis with the ability to add due dates, attach items to cases or matters, and to assign them to other members of your team is absolutely necessary to run a fast paced law practice.
- Conflict checking. Some law firms have thousands of past and current clients at any one time. Being able to quickly and accurately check for conflicts of interests makes taking on new work painless and streamlined.
- Document management and integration. Some case management software platforms offer scanned document management with the ability to attach them to cases/matters. Also, some allow for integration with outside document management websites such a Dropbox or Google Drive.
- Time keeping and billing. Depending upon the type of practice you have, time keeping and billing is very important. Having the ability to easily input time on a particular matter and to easily generate invoices based upon those inputs is necessary to have a seamless and efficient practice.
- Trust accounting and basic bookkeeping. Again, you may be interested in a complete package type of law practice management system that does everything from A to Z, including the firm’s books.
Law Practice Management Software Options
Many options exist for law practice management software. The following list is not an exhaustive list of the various law practice management software options on the market today. I am only going to focus on the options that I have had personal experience with. I am also going to focus on options that will help in enhancing disaster preparedness and that are relatively less expensive. However, there are some very robust platforms offered that would perform just about everything any law firm would need, no matter what size. For example, Needles is a program that offers everything; however, it costs thousands of dollars to fully implement. Here are summaries of some of the case management systems that would work well:
- Amicus Attorney: Amicus Attorney is a good fit for firms that need a wide range of functions and features to manage their practice. It is also good for firms that want the option to work from the cloud or their desktop. However, it is probably not a good fit for those looking for templates that help streamline your workflow.
- Clio: Clio is a powerful, innovative, cloud-based user-friendly law practice platform that offers law firms an array of options for adding functionality through its extensive App Directory and open API.
- Rocket Matter: Rocket Matter is robust, cloud-based productivity-focused law practice management software that works great for solos and small firms. Rocket Matter helps you organize information about your clients and your firm. But more than most law practice management software, Rocket Matter is focused on helping you get things done.
- SmartAdvocate: SmartAdvocate was developed by a litigator, especially for high-volume personal injury law firms. It is a powerful and customizable law practice management software that is available in two versions: a server version, where you install the software on your own server; and a hosted version, available through the cloud and maintained by SmartAdvocate on its own servers.
While the information in this article might seem overwhelming, it does not have to be. If you take away one thing from this article it is that you should try do something that will help your law firm be prepared for a disaster.