There is nothing like a disaster to show you the holes in your law firm’s Disaster Recovery Plan. And there’s nothing like a couple of disasters in a row to show you how desperately you need a Disaster Recovery Plan in the first place.
Let me tell you about my August and September. It started with me taking a full week’s vacation the first week of August. I was celebrating my 50th birthday with a cruise to Cuba, planned well in advance for what was historically our slowest time of the year. Instead, July went crazy and we wound up dealing with a huge litigation mess at the end of the month and more business than we knew what to do with. Not the ideal time to be going to a country with no phone or Internet access. I came back from vacation to a controlled mess (controlled thanks to my wonderful law partner and possibly even more wonderful paralegal, but a mess nonetheless).
And then my dog was diagnosed with cancer. And then my brother-in-law had a heart attack. And then my friend Heather, who lives in Houston, was hit with Hurricane Harvey soon after I got back. And then I found out that my friend Traci, a teacher and single mom with a toddler, was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 42. I had a lot of things pulling my focus away from work, but I kept doing the best that I could for my clients, meeting deadlines and trying to get things back on track. As I was being hit by one personal crisis after another, I kept thinking about what someone once said about bad service: Nobody cares why the service is bad. There’s no sign on the door that says, “Sorry for the crappy service, we’re having a bad day!”
And then my father-in-law died, and we hit the road to Michigan. I found myself out of town again, at a remote location with no reliable phone or Internet, this time for a funeral. (FYI: my father-in-law’s house is about 250 miles north of The Middle of Nowhere, about 25 miles from the nearest Walmart.) Meanwhile, clients waited for me to return calls, answer email, draft their documents, and, you know, be their lawyer. They rightfully expected the work they paid me for to be done. Don’t get me wrong: our clients were all kinds of sympathetic. But they still wanted and needed their work to be done. I did as much as I could, as quickly and as well as I could under the circumstances, but it was not much.
Did I mention I live in Florida? Yeah. So we buried my father-in-law and immediately, as in the same afternoon, got back in the car and started driving home so we could prep for Hurricane Irma. When I got back to the office on Tuesday, September 5th, my partner and I doubled down and got as much done as possible, but we also had to execute our Disaster Recovery Plan, which meant closing the firm by Friday, September 8th. We were not clear to reopen until Tuesday, September 12th, and we really needed two full days to get the office put back together and figure out where we were at on work product.
If you do not have a Disaster Recovery Plan, you really need to get one. It should include a list of critical documents (your corporate book, tax documents, and insurance policies) that must be put in safe storage. It should include a plan for backing up every file on every computer in your office, securing physical files and other papers, and making sure all peripherals are unplugged and moved to a safe place away from windows. It should include emergency contacts for every staff member and attorney. It might also include a physical inventory of your firm’s furniture and equipment and their locations. And it should have a plan for notifying clients and opposing counsel about what’s going on.
As I learned (rather painfully), you should also have a plan for how you are going to get the work done even if there’s a disaster. It’s as if someone walked into my office, poured gasoline on everything, and lit a match. The whole damned thing is on fire! Every single matter I’m working on is now a crisis. Every single client needs a phone call, some hand holding, and a sincere apology. And they all need their work done yesterday. We planned for everything but that! We didn’t count on back-to-back crises, having a hurricane on top of a funeral on top of a bunch of other stuff. I had a plan for how to recover from going on vacation, and even somewhat of a plan for getting back on track after the funeral. But Irmageddon on top of all of that? Nope.
One of the things that has helped us is using a project management system as well as a case management system. We use Basecamp, a project management platform used primarily in the software industry but that is broadly useful. Basecamp lets us all see what work is pending on each matter in a more prioritized and usable way than most case management systems really provide, and it gives us an independent method of tracking deadlines and dockets. When experiencing a force majeure event (and Irma was a VERY majeure force!), having a project management system in place lets us accomplish two things really quickly: 1. matters with deadlines or court dates attached are top of the list, making it easy to individually notify those clients about what we were dealing with and put a plan in place; and 2. when we came back to work, we could easily see what had to be addressed first based on the status of their matter and how long the client had been waiting.
Irma hit us hard, but we were lucky. The office didn’t lose power or even Internet access for long, and though each of us has had to deal with cleanup at home, no one was hurt. A week later, some roads are still impassable, some places are still flooded, some people still have no power, and many businesses are still closed. But we’re still here. Law school does not prepare you for this. Unless you have a crystal ball you have no idea what is going to happen. There’s no controlling when personal or natural disaster will strike. The best you can do is make a plan.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.