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  • Wisconsin lawyers share advice on planning for disasters

    Planning for natural disasters is an important part of practicing law. Creating a disaster plan can save a law firm from weeks, or even months, of delays. Taking the rights steps now — through measures like computer back-ups — can help your firm or business bounce back quickly from unexpected events.
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    Disaster PlanningBy org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin

    Jul 7, 2010 – Wisconsin is no stranger to natural disaster. Storms, flooding, fire, and a host of other causes can damage offices and homes. For lawyers, damaged client files, records, and other property can halt a law practice that took years to build. Planning for such events can minimize damage and expedite the recovery effort.

    In June, tornadoes ripped through the town of Eagle, destroying homes and businesses. Last year, flooding forced a state of emergency for 29 southeastern counties. Fire can occur at any time. Although insurance policies can replace the office desk and chair, they cannot replace critical data such as client files or billing records.

    “I don’t think law firms, even big ones, think about it too much,” said Sarah Ruffi of Ruffi Law Offices S.C., Wausau. “It’s just human nature to avoid planning for something that you don’t want to see happen.”

    Ruffi, who will present “Tornadoes, Fires, Floods: Navigate Through Disaster Planning” at the Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference this fall, developed a disaster plan for her Wausau law firm after witnessing a business next door go up in flames.

    “I thought, I have all my back-up files in the office, but what if the office burns down?” Ruffi said. “I realized how important it was to create a plan in the event something happened.”

    In other words, lawyers should plan ahead for a situation in which the firm suddenly has no office, no computers, no networks, no Internet, no office equipment or furniture, and no telephone lines.

    Backing up data and files

    An important first step is assessing a firm’s preparedness in the event of disaster. The assessment should consider a worst case scenario to determine what it would take to keep the practice going in the event of disaster.

    One of the major aspects to consider in assessing a firm’s preparedness is data preservation and recovery. According to org npetro wisbar Nerino Petro, Practice 411 Law Office Management Assistance Program advisor at the State Bar of Wisconsin, “backing up data is an essential part of law practice and doing so routinely can assist law firms recuperate quickly.”

    According to Petro, a good back-up plan consists of various levels of protection. These levels serve as safety nets. Ideally, you start with a mirror of your data so what gets written to one drive gets written to the other as well.

    This can be done through software or hardware solutions. Known as “bare metal restore,” this can be done every three to six months so that you don’t have to reinstall all of your applications in the event of a failure. Typical “bare metal restore” programs include Acronis TrueImage, Symantec Ghost, ShadowProtect, and Clonezilla.

    David Traver, whose Eagle law office survived the recent tornado there, uses two hard drives and duplicates them weekly using Clonezilla. He keeps one hard drive offsite at all times. If the office was destroyed, Traver said he would “still be in good shape.” His information would still be accessible, and he could simply work from home or the library.

    “A lot of firms don’t back-up the whole hard drive,” Traver said. “If data is lost, they spend a lot of time reinstalling software and trying to recover it. I just duplicate the whole thing.”

    There are other solutions that keep multiple copies of files and save them to a different hard drive, such as KeepSafe from Stardock, ViceVersa, GoodSync, BounceBack software that offers continuous data protections, and ReBit.

    This approach protects you from hardware failure, but not a catastrophic loss, like a fire or tornado that destroys your equipment. For that, you need to back-up your data to a media that allows you to remove a copy and store it offsite such as external hard drives or other back-up devices that use hard drive cartridges or carriers.

    Ruffi, a solo practitioner, backs up existing computer files on external hard drives and keeps them secure in a place outside the office.

    Ideally, you create a back-up of not only your data, but also of the operating system and all of your programs eliminating the need to find all of your program disks, installing them one by one and then downloading all of the updates for them.

    Finally, Petro said you need your GoTH (Go To Hades) plan for the data that you absolutely need to have to re-open your office. This generally consists of time, billing and accounting data, key forms and client data. Since this is a smaller amount of data, it is generally backed up offsite using remote back-up services that provide data back-up over the Internet.

    Usually, a small back-up remote client is installed on your computer or computers that back-up selected data on a scheduled basis, Petro said. These companies usually use multiple data centers geographically distant from one another to lessen the likelihood of data loss in the event of a natural or other disaster.

    These services vary. From services such as Carbonite, Mozy, JungleDisk, and a number of alternatives, to full-featured services provided by companies like CoreVault, the State Bar’s new member benefit provider, iBackup, or i365.

    Petro said companies like CoreVault offer live technical support and more robust back-up options, including the ability to send you a hard drive to create the initial back-up to install on their remote servers. While services may be sufficient for the technologically savvy, for those that want to communicate with a real person when they have a question and want to make sure their data is secure and backed up, one of the full-featured alternatives is the best choice.

    Advances in technology have also created back-up options for integrated practice management records, like accounting, billing and other contact or client information. Using Prolaw, Ruffi backs up her management software every night on an out-of-state secured server.

    When it comes to paper files, Ruffi said using fireproof or water resistant file cabinets is another option. If paper files are damaged, there are document recovery services to help restore them. Valuable papers insurance can cover the costs associated with restoring damaged documents.

    Other important aspects to consider

    If an office is destroyed by fire, flooding, or some other natural disaster, how will a lawyer keep contact with his or her clients? What is the business continuation plan? Petro said it’s important to establish lines of communication so clients and staff can reach you.

    A firm can use its own website for this purpose, divert telephone calls to cell phones, or use social media like LinkedIn or Facebook to keep clients informed of the situation.

    In a Wisconsin Lawyer article, “Preparing a Disaster Recovery Plan,” author Thomas J. Watson explained that “[e]ven in the event of a business interruption, your professional responsibilities to your clients continue, including on-going communication, diligent representation, and confidentiality.”

    Watson recommended setting up an advance arrangement for temporary work space, supplies and office equipment. In addition, law firms should consider what business contacts are necessary to keep the firm running, such as vendors, banks, and other service providers. Watson also recommended establishing a disaster fund to cover expenses or purchasing business interruption insurance coverage.

    In addition, Petro said that a disaster plan should evolve as technology evolves. Revisiting the disaster plan annually can help law firms identify new issues and monitor costs.

    “It’s always a good idea to review the disaster plan annually, decide how the firm has changed, how technology has changed, and assess what should be done differently,” Petro said.

    Other resources

    For more about what to consider in planning for a disaster, refer to the State Bar’s disaster planning checklist, which covers various aspects that lawyers should consider when developing a disaster plan.

    The State Bar’s Practice 411 Law Office Management Assistance Program has a “disaster resources” page. In addition, CoreVault and the American Bar Association also have disaster planning information.

    Other articles, published in the Wisconsin Lawyer, explain the technical aspects of planning for disaster: “Disaster Planning is Good Practice” by Sally E. Anderson, and “Planning for Disaster and Recovery is NOT Optional” by Ross Kodner.