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  • September 06, 2017

    Expect the Unexpected: A Lesson from Hurricane Harvey

    The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey is a good reminder to Wisconsin lawyers to make a plan for the unexpected – minimizing the cost to you, your practice, and your clients. Here are Tom Watson's tips to get you started.

    Thomas J. Watson

    distressed businessman standing in storm water

    Sept. 6, 2017 – Hurricane Harvey is a reminder that the unexpected can happen at any time.

    In the event of a fire, flood, tornado, or other disaster, are you prepared? Planning ahead before disaster strikes mitigates the damage and helps you preserve the hard work you’ve put into your practice, manage your risks, and recover more quickly. It can save you from interrupted client services, missed deadlines, and lengthy office downtime. All of those can result in losing clients and money or even being the target of a malpractice claim.

    When disaster strikes, how does a lawyer carry on? Having a disaster recovery plan for your law practice before disaster strikes is a good first step. And there is no better time to consider it than now.

    Anticipate the Possibilities

    A catastrophic weather event, fire, or other disruptive event could happen at any time. Even if you never worry about weather-related destruction or fire, there are other business interruptions to consider.

    Thomas J. WatsonThomas J. Watson, Marquette 2002, is senior vice president and director of communications at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., Madison.

    But what else might go wrong? A law partner with a large caseload could have a serious illness and miss work for weeks or even months. Your computer system could crash. You could get hacked. Could your office continue operating seamlessly with a technology failure? What if you lost crucial files? Could you recover them?

    If your practice were shut down even for a short time, the results of that downtime could be devastating. They include:

    • loss of income and clients;

    • loss of potential income and potential clients;

    • lost productivity and idle employee costs;

    • unanticipated business expenses;

    • missed deadlines and appointments; and

    • malpractice claims.

    Professional Responsibilities Continue

    Even in the event of a business interruption, your professional responsibilities continue, including maintaining communication with your clients, providing diligent representation, and ensuring confidentiality. Your cases are not put on hold.

    You have the same professional responsibilities you had before your practice was interrupted – whether it was caused by a fire, a computer failure, or the sudden departure of one of your firm's partners.

    Certain mistakes and omissions are common in the context of planning and preparing for a disaster. They include:

    • no backup for client files;

    • inadequate backup for computers;

    • no current list of clients with open cases;

    • failure to duplicate accounting records regarding fees paid and earned, leaving the lawyer and client with nothing to establish the reasonableness of fees; and

    • failure to record contingency-fee contracts.

    Where to Find Help for Your Recovery Plan

    To find help with setting up your disaster recovery plan, look to these resources:

    • Practice411, the State Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Program, is available for guidance on your technology and office questions. Call (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or email with your questions.

    • WisLAP, the State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, is available to help you deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and addictions. Call the 24-hour helpline (800) 543-2625, where trained volunteer lawyers and judges are available to offer support and guidance.

    You can also download this sample disaster recovery plan from the Bar Association of Erie County, in Buffalo, New York, and customize it for your own practice.

    Prepare for the Worst – Have a Good Business-continuation Plan

    A good business recovery plan includes procedures that define how your office will continue and how it will recover its critical functions in the event of an unplanned disruption.

    Some lawyers, especially sole practitioners and those in two- or three-lawyer firms, complain that they do not have the time needed to put together a business-continuation plan. Time not spent on client matters costs money.

    But there's an old saying: billable time determines your income; nonbillable time determines your future! You cannot afford not to have a plan. When developing a business-continuation plan, the cheapest alternatives are not necessarily the best alternatives.

    Here are a few things to consider in your plan:

    • Establish a Target Recovery Time. When do you want to be back up and running? Do you want to be operational within four hours? One business day? 48 or 72 hours?

    • Make an Evacuation Plan. Establish a building evacuation procedure and a plan to notify and account for all employees. Include in your plan steps to be taken if telephone service is unavailable or if your office is not accessible (for example, identifying a place where staff members should meet). Maintain a contact list of all employees, including home and work phone numbers, home addresses, and emergency contact information. Keep a copy of the list off-site.

    • Set Duties and Responsibilities. All employees should have a written copy of your business-recovery plan and should be aware of their responsibilities in carrying it out.

    • Plan for an Alternative Work Site. Arrange for an alternative work site so that you can continue operating if you cannot immediately work from your building.

    • Make a Plan to Communicate with Clients. Keep client contact lists current – and store a copy off-site. Make a plan to contact them individually, including establishing a calling tree if necessary.

    • Find a Colleague Willing to Help. In the event that you or your staff cannot work, find a colleague willing to help you communicate with your clients and meet critical deadlines in their cases.

    • Set Up Protection for Your Data and Files — Electronic and Paper. Nothing is more important than backing up your computer data. Establish your electronic data backup procedures and test them regularly. You do not want to discover during a disaster situation that your data backup system is faulty.

      To protect your paper files, first define and identify vital records: those that are essential for your business to continue operating. Scan active files and store copies off-site. Keep paper files in your office in locked metal cabinets that are off the floor, away from possible flooding.

      If possible, contract in advance with a document recovery service. Make sure the service has expertise in and equipment for salvaging and restoring paper documents. Evaluate the security of off-site records storage. Is the facility staffed? Does it have a sprinkler system and a fire alarm? What insurance does the facility owner carry to cover your property?

    • Review Your Property Insurance Coverage. Does your policy cover building contents as well as the structure? Do you have business-interruption and extra-expense coverage? Does your insurance cover office equipment, including those that are rented?

    Planning Shortens Recovery

    Disaster recovery plans are all about your obligations to your clients, your staff, and yourself. If your files are organized and you have taken the steps necessary to preserve them, and you have prepared your staff and your office operations for a potential disaster or business interruption, your recovery period may be short. That is your goal: avoid any lengthy downtime. The sooner you are back up and running, the more likely you are to continue providing reliable, uninterrupted client services.

    A disaster, or even slight office interruption, can happen without warning and cost you money and emotional heartache.

    Critical Information to Maintain Off Premises

    Copies of the following documents and information should be available to you, your firm administrator, or office manager in an off-site location:

    1. Your firm's insurance policies, including policy numbers, agents' names and telephone numbers, and instructions for filing claims.
    2. All law firm banking and trust accounts and safe deposit boxes: Where are they? How titled? Who has signatory authority?
    3. Your lease and the name and phone number of the office building manager, if applicable.
    4. The location of computer equipment for restoring data, along with the location of your off-site backup disks or tapes.
    5. Detailed records of firm income, accounts receivable, payroll, and other documentation for filing a claim under your business-interruption insurance.
    6. A recent valuation of your firm property (building and contents) for filing a property insurance claim.
    7. A list of all library contents and subscriptions.
    8. A list of pertinent information about office equipment, including furniture, fax machines, photocopiers, dictation equipment, telephone equipment, and so on. This should include serial numbers, purchase date and price, vendor, warranty information, and service contracts.
    9. At least one calendar – paper or electronic.
    10. Clerk of courts and key court personnel contact information.

    Recovery Supplies to Keep On Hand

    • Blankets
    • Cash (ATMs may not be working)
    • Cell phone
    • Cleaning supplies
    • Clothesline or nylon fishing line
    • Disposable cameras with flash
    • Duct tape
    • Emergency food and water
    • Fans and dehumidifiers
    • First aid supplies
    • Flashlights and batteries
    • Heavy-duty garbage bags
    • Paper towels and freezer or wax paper
    • Phone book
    • Plastic storage boxes
    • Protective eyewear
    • Rubber gloves and boots
    • Sponges, brushes, and hoses
    • Tarpaulins or plastic sheeting
    • Tool kit
    • Transistor radio and batteries
    • Waterproof, heavy-duty extension cords
    • Water-resistant color markers, labels, chalk, tape
    • Wet/dry vacuum
    • Wet-weather gear and warm clothing
    • Wheeled cart

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