When you manage a law firm, you may be called to move your entire operation off-site for any one of a number of reasons. In recent years, there have been terrorist attacks, natural disasters and the recent Coronavirus pandemic that have forced the closing of physical law firm offices. Natural disasters may even be the new normal for the country in the coming years. However, law firm business must go on no matter the circumstances because your clients will need your services even when you cannot physically be in the office. Your clients may need your services more than ever when there is an upheaval that could place them in complicated legal situations. With that in mind, here are six steps that you can take to ensure the continuity of your law firm when you are facing a natural disaster.
Define Your Mission and Goals
The first thing that you need to consider in a disaster plan is your goal for what you need to accomplish during the emergency. Of course, your ultimate purpose is to continue to provide legal services for clients, but your disaster recovery plan must be customized to consider the unique circumstances of your business and clientele.
For example, if you are a litigation firm and conduct business outside the area that is affected by the disaster, you should plan for the fact that you may still need to operate on tight deadlines. You should consider what you will need to do for your clients and then work backward from there to figure out how you can get it done. This will include the specific steps that you need to take to keep providing the services that your clients need.
Prepare a Business Impact Analysis
There is still a long way to go from identifying your goals to actually having a disaster plan in place. The important intermediate step is a business impact analysis. This report synthesizes and integrates your firm’s resources and then figures out where you can be vulnerable in the event of a disaster.
Cataloging your entire firm may seem like a daunting task, but this is a vital piece of the planning. Start by compiling an exhaustive spreadsheet of every person in your firm and the role that they play. Then, take an exhaustive inventory of your technology assets and how they all work together to facilitate the services that you provide. The critical part is figuring out the interplay between all of your systems and how they work together. Finally, you should compile a comprehensive list of all of the vendors that your law firm depends upon for your daily business.
From here, you can proceed to document the processes that you use for your business. You should figure out which people, processes and technologies are essential for your continued operation and begin to spec out the contours of your plan. It is critical to realize that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all disaster recovery plan. Instead, it factors in the specifics of your law firm and practice to devise a customized solution.
Review Your Succession and Authority
One issue that needs to be factored in is that key personnel who make decisions may either be unreachable or incapacitated in the event of a disaster. Waiting for people to make decisions can cost your firm valuable time when it comes to disaster recovery. Of course, you want your decision-makers in charge of the firm during the crucial time right after a disaster, but that is not always possible.
You must have a succession plan in place in the event of a disaster so that decision-making can transition to the next person in line. The first step toward this is having clear delegations of authority to know who is responsible for what decision if the regular people are not able to fulfill their roles. There should be a pre-designated succession method already enacted to make an orderly transition in the event that it is necessary.
Your attorneys and employees must know ahead of time who will be empowered to make key decisions and speak for the firm. Further, the people to assume these roles must have at least some training that would enable them to perform in them if necessary.
Prioritize Your Firm’s Communications
One of the most important things that you need to address first is the issue of communications. Your staff needs to be able to talk to each other and clients during the early phases of a disaster to begin to execute the disaster plan. The first thing that your firm needs to do is reach employees to alert them that the disaster recovery plan is in place.
The most obvious piece of this plan is the call tree that you will need to get in touch with your employees. Then, you will either need to figure out an alternative or backup communication if there is no phone or internet service. You cannot rely on the fact that your main channels will be working; you need to plan backups. In addition, you will need to figure out ways to communicate with your clients quickly and reliably so that you can deliver legal services to them as they need it.
One of the most important pieces of this is ensuring that you have a readily accessible backup of your vital phone numbers. In addition, you need to be able to communicate with an alternate site and your IT data center. While it is impossible to know ahead of time what modes of communication will be working, this is where you truly need to have several different plans to factor in the worst.
Familiarize and Train With the Plan
It is crucial that everyone in the law firm be familiar with your disaster plan because they never quite know when they will be called upon to execute it. Natural disasters tend to strike fast with little notice, and the business continuity and recovery plan will need to be executed quickly.
Accordingly, all law firm employees should be made aware of what the disaster plan is. This includes both firm support staff and attorneys. Make sure to include disaster recovery in the annual training that your lawyers must complete so that they are familiar with the measures. Then, you should include periodic updates of any changes to the plan that are made between training and exercises.
If there is even a remote possibility that the plan may become necessary, such as a forecast of a storm, conduct refresher training so that employees know of every detail of the plan. What is most important is that everyone learns how the disaster recovery plan specifically involves them so that they can understand their role. Once the disaster actually strikes, the key personnel in your firm who are tasked with implementing the plan are likely going to be overloaded, so advance training is a must. This way, your attorneys do not lose valuable time that they can be using to advise clients who need their help.
Conduct Periodic Testing of Your Plan
In order to know that your disaster recovery plan will work when it is needed, it is crucial to conduct a test when times are good. This will help reveal any gaps and flaws in your disaster recovery plan before you must put your actual plan into place. Then, take the lessons that you learn and use them to fix any deficiencies.
You can conduct a business continuity exercise where you can actually rehearse for a potential disaster. In this test, you can evaluate practically every part of your plan from your communications systems to your logistical solution to see how they perform. The key to this plan involves selecting the right kind of scenario and parameters for the test. Then, each part of your organization will be assigned roles and responsibilities that they must carry out during the exercise.
Disaster planning tests do not have to be full-scale in order to be effective. You can also test parts of your plan on occasion to gain valuable information. Nonetheless, you will still need a periodic full-scale test to help your business.
When you are testing, it is vital to diagnose what has not performed according to plan so that you can adjust your disaster recovery plan. Studies have shown that there are definite benefits to frequent testing and fine-tuning this plan. One of the most important things that you can gain from your tests is a list of lessons learned that can aid you in the event of an actual disaster.
Disaster planning is something that many people do not want to tackle. However, you cannot wait for the worst to happen to realize that you need to extensively plan for it in advance.
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We may be able to help you by providing referrals to consultants, and by providing guidance relative to insurance issues, and even to certain preventives, including the development and application of sound human resources management policies and procedures. Please call on us for assistance. We’re a member of the Professional Liability Agents Network (PLAN). We’re here to help.