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Disaster planning for law firms.

Byline: Matt Chaney

Category 4 Hurricane Florence is headed straight for the Carolinas and has the potential to gravely impact a wide swath of the eastern seaboard from Virginia to South Carolina.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster ordered that the entire coastline in the state be evacuated beginning Sept. 11 at noon. More than 1 million people are expected to or have already fled.

Heavy rains caused by the expected slow of the storm could bring torrential rains to the Appalachian mountains, causing flash flooding, mudslides, or other dangerous conditions in the western portions of the state. Widespread electrical outages are expected, with the possibility for interruption to other utility services.

While everyone's primary concern should be taking care of their families and homes, the storm raises another important question: What should law firms in the state do to prepare for the storm, and to ensure their business continues in a worst-case scenario?

Jim Calloway, author of the Law Practice Tips Blog and the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association's Management Assistance Program, lectures on the topic frequently and was involved in the cleanup in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit. He said in a recent interview that one of the most important things a law firm can do is to have a written disaster recovery or business continuity plan prepared.

"It's a complete plan including copies of insurance policies, contacts for service providers, and contact information for all of your employees," he said. "Print out the next two to three weeks of calendars on paper. Cell towers can break down, email can break down. It's important to have physical copies of employees' cell phone numbers."

The disaster plan should be backed up digitally in an off-site server or on the cloud, where it can be accessed via a computer or a phone, Calloway said. Additionally, trusted employees should keep hard copies of the plan at home in case of electronic failure, and firms should delegate responsibilities ahead of time.

For firms that don't have an existing plan, Calloway recommends they go into what he called "triage mode," prioritizing what needs to get done now and making plans to put off what doesn't during the times when the weather is supposed to be at its worst.

"Are there documents due in two to three days that you can do now? Is there an appointment you can reschedule that's no harm, no foul?" he said.

Sharon Nelson, president of Sensei Enterprises Inc. in Fairfax, Virginia, who has lectured previously with Calloway and written on the topic of disaster preparedness, said another important issue to address is backing up client data and other business information.

"One critical factor is backup. This can't be at your home or in your office, because both could be flooded," Nelson said. "There has to be physical separation, you must have a backup in the cloud that's encrypted so that nobody can turn over your clients' confidential data and you can make sure the information is safe."

Nelson said picking back up after the storm is considerably easier if case management software is backed up in the cloud.

"You can be back up and running much faster," Nelson said. "Those folks aren't going to be impacted the same way because they've got replicas everywhere."

Nelson said offices should also consider backing up the software configurations of their computers and servers to ensure a quicker installation if computers get damaged.

Calloway said the backups should extend to physical documents. Obviously, the best solution is to have digital versions of all documents, but he said sometimes simply cleaning up your desk can go a long way toward protecting your clients' information.

"You don't want to leave a lot of loose paper or confidential documents laying about," Calloway said. "In the case of property damage, the office may be full of first responders or water remediation teams. If you don't want to expose client data, it might be worth cleaning up your desk."

Nelson also stressed the importance of considering your office's geography. Obviously if you've never had high water problems before in your area, you're at a lower risk of flooding, but that doesn't mean it can't happen if you're located in a low-lying space near a body of water.

"Folks need to ask, 'Where am I and am I at risk?'" Nelson said. "We haven't had a storm like this, but the potential of it is as great as anything we have ever seen in our recent past."

She and Calloway both recommended that firms at risk of flooding move everything they can off the floor and away from windows. Even better, if you're at a high risk of flooding, it may be worth considering moving electronics out of the office until the storm has passed. And again, put the most important items in waterproof containers like a safe, or if nothing else suffices, in a firm's dishwasher.

Nelson said firms should think about what the electronics they leave in the office are plugged into.

"Everything you have should be connected to an uninterrupted power supply," Nelson said. "If you have a UPS attached to every device and the power goes out, this will make sure there is an orderly shutdown and the equipment is not damaged."

Both Nelson and Calloway recommended that firms consider using a generator to keep televisions, computers and telephones powered, and in lieu of that, be sure to charge all devices and consider having extra batteries to recharge.

Calloway said that some of the most obvious things are often what gets forgotten in emergency situations. As a result, he said, documenting your office possessions is one of the best things you can do to help your insurance claim go through in cases of property damage. He recommended taking a video walking through the office with a cell phone to document the office's possessions.

Lastly, both Calloway and Nelson emphasized the importance of taking care of your employees. While the business of law is important, so are the lives and priorities of lawyers, employees and their families. Calloway stressed giving new employees some coaching ahead of time to help them prepare their homes for the storm, and to have patience with those who've been impacted.

"Be very generous with staff who've been impacted," Calloway said. "They'll notice if you prioritize your own."

He also said to consider going to the bank ahead of time to withdraw cash in case the banks aren't open, and to keep the money in a company safe in order to pay employees, or to help pay for a meal, if needed.

Nelson said it's important to stick with the plan, even when things hit the fan.

"The big thing is to stay calm and think things through logically," she said. "Most offices have IT people they can call. So, check with those folks to see what precautions they should take."

The South Carolina Bar also has guidelines on its website about what to do to prepare for such emergencies. This is available at: https://www.scbar.org/lawyers/managing-your-law-practice/disaster-and-emergency-preparedness/.

Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney

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Author:Chaney, Matt
Publication:South Carolina Lawyers Weekly
Date:Sep 11, 2018
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