Putting Together a Law Firm Disaster Recovery Plan

Putting Together a Law Firm Disaster Recovery Plan

By the time Hurricane Harvey had moved on from Houston, 30 percent of Harris County was under water. When Hurricane Irma petered out over South Carolina, she left a trail of devastation stretching from St. Vincent to St. Petersburg. To the west, wildfires shrouded cities from Portland to Vancouver in smoke and covered some towns with falling ash. The largest fire in Los Angeles history briefly looked like it could creep down from the hillsides into the city. It all happened in a span of just two weeks. If you were following the news, you might have felt like you were watching the beginning of the end of the world, as the New York Times put it.

But these weren’t the end of times. The Four Hoursemen never descended from the sky. No rough beast slouched towards Bethlehem to be born. And those impacted by the floods, storms, and fires, including thousands of legal professionals, are now slowly putting things back in order and returning to work.

Lawyers are not immune to disaster and major weather events, from hurricanes to floods to fires, are expected to grow in frequency in future years, highlighting why all legal professionals need to have a recovery plan in place.

Disaster Planning 101

A business-crippling disaster can take many forms. There are the natural disasters, like a hurricane or an earthquake. There are man-made disasters, such as fires or terrorism. There are cyber disasters, like the ransomware attack that shut down DLA Piper earlier this summer, at a likely cost of millions of dollars a day.

But while every catastrophe is catastrophic in its own way, disaster recovery plans are largely all alike. A law firm disaster response typically involves “a predictable series of steps,” according to the ABA’s “Disaster Recovery For Law Firms,” beginning with the most immediate concerns: First, there is the work of dealing with the crisis itself, of simply getting through the event. That is followed by attending to needs of any injured parties and protecting against imminent harms. From there, firms focus on:

  • Retaining and recovering records
  • Reconnecting with clients
  • Assessing damage
  • Replacing destroyed or damaged resources
  • Returning to business

As disasters rarely announce themselves beforehand, law firms that are affected by a disaster often have little time to prepare. Making sure you’re organized in advance, with a clear plan on how to approach and recover from a crisis, can be the key to getting back on your feet quickly—something particularly important when dealing with sensitive and urgent client matters.

If your firm doesn’t have a disaster plan, now is the time to put one together. If you haven't revisited your existing plan for awhile, now is the time to update it. The ABA’s book, linked above, is a good place to start. Created from excerpts from “The Essential Formbook,” the publication provides, for free, a host of forms that can help guide you through the basics of disaster planning, from emergency contact forms to client and affiliate notification procedures. LexisNexis also provides a quick survey that can act as a starting point for assessing your disaster preparedness, covering things such as insurance coverage and credit and capital needs post business interruption.

Security in the Cloud

For legal professionals looking for a quick, secure, and cost-effective approach to disaster planning, the cloud is an important component to keep in mind. While the cloud can’t ensure that your staff remains safe or that your insurance needs are met, it can help maintain access to critical documents and information during and after a disaster. All you need is an internet connection.

Consider, for example, two firms both recovering from a fire. In both firms, the offices are rendered inaccessible due to the blaze. Both firms have seen serious material damage and business disruption, but no disruption to staff. In one firm, very little information is kept on the cloud. Important files are stored in external hard drives or locked in storage lockers. Discovery and document management processes are handled by on-premise software. The firm's own internal servers might even handle the email and business networks on sight. In the second firm, much of this has been moved to the cloud. That firm's documents can be retrieved from anywhere, while permission-based access and sophisticated encryption, both in motion and at rest, keep data protected from outsiders.

You can probably see where this is going. The first firm would face significantly more disruption to its operations. Not only would lawyers and staff be locked out of files, critical firm infrastructure could be damaged or destroyed. Files would need to be recovered through expensive and lengthy restoration from backups, if they could be recovered at all. The firm utilizing the cloud, however, would be able to get back to work with significantly less turmoil.

Of course, the cloud is only on a part of a disaster plan and it cannot protect against all disaster-related risks. And how quickly you can get back to document review is rarely the first concern facing legal professionals post-disaster. But when it comes to making sure you can get back to business and continue serving your clients, having an effective plan in place is essential. Otherwise, the next catastrophe could really be the end of the world for your firm.

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