Is Your Firm Prepared for Disaster?

Aderant Think Tank

Is Your Firm Prepared for Disaster?

In a recent development “ripped from the headlines”, the firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart announced the formation of an Ebola Rapid Response Team. Their team will advise employers on workplace issues around the potential spread of the deadly disease. The firm created the team “because lawyers were getting questions from clients ‘on a whole host of issues’ around the outbreak, such as keeping workers safe and handling leave requests from employees fearing contamination.”

The need for this particular disaster response strategy highlights the larger issue of business continuity that faces every firm. It’s an area that many lawyers haven’t given much thought, despite the fact that low-probability, so-called “Black Swan” disasters do indeed occur.

In a report titled Business Continuity Planning for a Legal Firm, the Houston Chronicle noted that a variety of events can disrupt a legal firm’s operations. Specifically, “natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, can destroy facilities and records, or make it impossible for employees to travel to the office. The passing of a key partner or lawyer can put vital client relationships in danger, and can reduce the quality of the firm’s services. Manmade disasters, such as robbery and arson, can also cause a disruption for a legal firm.” In 2011, the ABA published A Lawyer’s Guide to Disaster Planning, citing “the increased severity and frequency, and decreased predictability of such natural and man-made disasters, and even the possibility of every day disruptions (ex. power failures, localized flooding).”

In light of these increased threats, firms need to protect their basic assets along with their ability to function in challenging circumstances. The State Bar of California states four simple “recovery goals” for a firm following a disaster: protect safety of personnel; protect safety and security of vital assets, documents, and information; resume basic client services; and return to normal operations. The Chronicle points out that a “firm’s continuity plan should provide for alternative access to legal records, internal and public, as well as providing adequate working facilities for legal assistants to prepare briefs, documents and notes for lawyers.”

In my experience, damages caused by business interruptions are always preventable, but require thought, planning and investment. The “thought” involves listing every critical service and a comprehensive listing of their dependencies, as well as a subjective evaluation of their likelihood of failure or interruption. The “planning” involves the listing of possible methods to lessen that likelihood with corresponding estimates of cost or effort. The “investment” aspect is not strictly monetary, but in most cases is primarily in resource investment.

For starters, firms should make a list of the potential negative events that could significantly disrupt their business. They can then identify the critical elements from each and create plans to deal with them. As noted by The Chronicle, firms should clearly communicate the continuity plan “and make sure all employees have access to their own copy of the plan.” Firms should also engage in a roundtable discussion of possible risks. This type of planning introduces the aspect of risk management to cross-functional areas of operations that may not typically work together.

The ABA argues that business continuity planning should become part of every firm’s day-to-day operations. As with Ogletree’s Ebola Rapid Response Team, your firm may want to consider creating a special committee or action group to establish and manage your disaster plan.

The most common retrospective reaction to disaster incidents is, “Why were we not protected against this?” The primary objective of a good risk management process is not only determining what vulnerabilities exist and coordinating mitigation, but also to document and communicate known vulnerabilities and mitigation planning to all responsible parties. That way when the unexpected occurs, at least you’ll be prepared!

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