Planning for a Disaster
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Planning for a Disaster

February 2014

California lawyers may not like to think about the impact a future disaster will have on their partners, staff, clients, and overall practice, but hoping that something bad won't happen is not a prudent strategy.

The hard fact is, disasters happen. And when they do, havoc may reign, bringing damage to the firm's physical premises as well as a potential body blow to its reputation. The term disaster means much more than catastrophic incidents such as a fire, flood, or earthquake that can decimate a business. Other dangers include accidentally hitting the delete key and wiping out important documents, computer viruses, hard drive failures, server crashes, or perhaps a dreaded cyberattack.

Indeed, it is imperative that law firms plan ahead for such eventualities. After all, every minute that attorneys and staff are unable to conduct normal business operations costs the firm thousands of dollars.

Regardless of the size of the incident, a timely response must be choreographed well in advance and documented as part of a comprehensive disaster-recovery and business-continuity plan.

The business-continuity component of the plan ensures that a firm's critical daily business functions are available so that clients and vendors receive consistent service. The disaster-recovery portion focuses on restoring specific systems and service and, if necessary, having another physical location from which to conduct business.

Unfortunately, many law firms do not plan ahead. According to the 2012 Legal Technology Survey Report published by the American Bar Association, only 61 percent of respondents reported their firm had a plan. At small firms (two to nine attorneys), the number is 57 percent, and for sole practitioners the figure drops to 50 percent.

The goal of any recovery plan is to keep attorneys and staff working by getting services such as phone lines and Internet access up and running as soon as possible. The following are six basic, yet critical, areas to include in your plan.

- All hands on deck. Every segment of the firm - attorneys, support staff, and administrative personnel - should be involved in crafting a documented plan. All parties should understand their roles and responsibilities. Decide who will contact the insurance company, who will talk to clients, and who will oversee repairs. Also, have a plan for the line of succession of authority, should that become necessary.

- Data backup and storage. A critical step to business survival is to back up and store data in an off-site location, in the cloud, or both. Moreover, both a data and a disk image backup is necessary to quickly restore firm functionality. Be sure assigned personnel know where items are stored and how to perform a restoration. And remember: Test restorations must take place on a periodic basis to ensure reliability.

- Communication lines. How will you communicate with emergency services, employees, clients, and vendors if phone lines and the Internet are down? Be aware that cell phones might not be working, either. Alternative communication methods to consider are an 800-number hotline, a conference line, or even walkie-talkies. You should also record important contact information in your plan.

- Alternative office location. The time to look for usable emergency space is not when the firm's building is destroyed or becomes inaccessible. Arrange to have a relocation site secured - with Internet access, phones, critical software applications, and data - to keep the business running. If necessary, some companies can provide fully equipped mobile units that can be set up quickly following a disaster.

- IT staff. How many people in the firm understand the intricate workings of your IT system? What would happen if they were suddenly unable to come to work? Make sure that in case that occurs, you have competent "second stringers" who can step up and take charge. The preparatory documentation should be such that even a non-IT staff member can implement the plan to restore services.

- Stay current. A business-continuity and recovery plan should never just sit on the shelf. If your firm has already created such a plan, review and update it regularly. The plan should also be tested each year.

No one is immune to a disaster. And though a comprehensive plan can't prevent initial chaos amidst catastrophe, it can help ensure that your firm recovers quickly.

Brad Mendonsa is CEO of Clare Computer Solutions in San Ramon.

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