It’s that time of year again – hurricane season. It seems like every week there’s a new hurricane forming, forcing people on the Eastern seaboard to close up their homes and businesses as the latest storm approaches.
If you’re a lawyer whose office is in the path of the hurricane, what are your options when a hurricane hits or other natural disaster strikes? How to you prepare your law firm to ensure that it can continue operating in the wake of a disaster? What steps should you take to preserve confidential client data, even if your law offices are struck by the storm?
These are tough and important questions that every lawyer should be able to answer. However, not all law firms have addressed these issues. If that sounds like your law firm – you don’t already have a disaster plan in place and you’re not sure where to start – you’re in luck: an ethics opinion recently handed down by the American Bar Association offers lots of great guidance.
In Formal Opinion 482, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility provided advice and ethical guidance for lawyers seeking to implement a disaster plan for their law firms. The Committee explained that lawyers have an obligation to prepare for the possibility of a disaster occurring:
“Lawyers have an ethical obligation to implement reasonable measures to safeguard property and funds they hold for clients or third parties, prepare for business interruption, and keep clients informed about how to contact the lawyers (or their successor counsel).”
According to the Committee, a big part of that preparation includes ensuring that an open line of communication with clients exists at all times. As part of this obligation, client contact information should always be readily available, even after a disaster hits. The Committee explained that one of the best ways to ensure that this happens is to store information electronically where it is easily accessible 24/7:
“One of the early steps lawyers will have to take after a disaster is determining the available methods to communicate with clients. To be able to reach clients following a disaster, lawyers should maintain, or be able to create on short notice, electronic or paper lists of current clients and their contact information. This information should be stored in a manner that is easily accessible.”
Throughout the opinion, the Committee emphasized the value – and the benefits – of online storage (aka cloud computing). Because 24/7 access to law firm files following a disaster is key, it’s important to set up your law firm in the cloud using software programs like law practice management software. Importantly, the Committee explained that exploring these options and choosing the right provider are important steps to take as part of disaster preparedness:
“(L)awyers must evaluate in advance storing files electronically so that they will have access to those files via the Internet if they have access to a working computer or smart device after a disaster. If Internet access to files is provided through a cloud service, the lawyer should (i) choose a reputable company, and (ii) take reasonable steps to ensure that the confidentiality of client information is preserved, and that the information is readily accessible to the lawyer.”
Last but not least, the Committee stressed the importance of having a well thought out disaster plan that takes advantage of the latest technological innovations, including cloud computing software. It then concluded the opinion with this advice:
“Lawyers must be prepared to deal with disasters. Foremost among a lawyer’s ethical obligations are those to existing clients, particularly in maintaining communication. Lawyers must also protect documents, funds, and other property the lawyer is holding for clients or third parties. By proper advance preparation and taking advantage of available technology during recovery efforts, lawyers will reduce the risk of violating professional obligations after a disaster.”
The bottom line: disaster can strike at anytime. Whether it’s a fire, a flood, a tornado, or any other type of natural disaster, establishing a disaster plan ahead of time is imperative. Is your firm ready? It not, there’s no better time than the present. So what are you waiting for? Give this opinion a read, take its advice to heart, and start planning today!