Preparing for the Unknown – Disaster Preparedness and Business Continuity Planning for Law Firms

As I write this, local schools are closing around me, events are being canceled, and our Governor in Massachusetts has issued a state of emergency. The CDC has advised sick or at-risk individuals to stay home, employers to allow for flexible sick leave, businesses to maintain disease outbreak response plans, and for everyone to keep abreast of the latest notices and guidelines from the CDC. 

While our current focus is on coronavirus, there will always be unanticipated events outside of your control that have the potential to impact your business. As such, all firms should have both a disaster preparedness and business continuity plan. As you are preparing for potential closures and remote work, you might as well use this to start building your plans now. Here are some questions you should ask and steps you should take to get prepared and formulate your plans.

Prioritize

Let’s take the most extreme scenario first. Say you need to shut your physical office down within days. What do you prioritize? Think about the lifecycle of a client matter. What do you need to ensure that you can continue to meet your clients needs if you cannot meet in-person or have access to your office? Now consider the operational side of your practice. What do you need to do to ensure that your business continues to run despite an office closure? Start with a list of no more than five areas that you need to address ASAP. Within each category, define specific tasks that you will take to prepare. 

In the Short Term

When time is of the essence, here are some questions you should be asking yourself in order to compile your priority list above:

Client Information

  • Do you have all your client information? Hopefully, you are using a case management system, such as MyCase to input client information that you can access wherever and whenever. If not, you should be thinking about how to build a list of client contacts should you need to communicate with your clients and do not have access to physical files.

Documents

  • What files do you need immediate access to? Do you have electronic access to those files? Now, is not the time to go full fledge paperless office, but you may be able to scan at least some of the most important and active files. 

Communication

  • Can you receive and send communications to clients, opposing counsel, courts, etc.?
    • Can you and do you know how to access your email remotely? Are you doing so in a secure manner?
    • How will you take calls, make calls, and check voicemails while you are out of the office? If you are using a VOIP system, do you how to access it remotely? If not, can you record an out of office message with information about how to reach you?

Billing

  • Can you pay bills and do payroll remotely? Do you pay your vendors electronically or by physical checks? Where is your checkbook? 

Data Backups

  • Do you have a server or hard drives that need to be backed up? How will those backups continue to run in your absence? 

Calendaring

  • Do you have your deadlines calendared? Where? Can you access them remotely? Can you share your calendar with others in your practice?

 

Tools to Get You Through

In tackling the questions above, you’ll likely need access to tools and software to keep running on all four cylinders. 

  • Laptop or Mobile Device. You’ll need a way to access your office remotely and to do work. If you don’t have a portable device, now might be the time to invest. You can purchase a cheap laptop for under $500. My Google search of “cheap laptop” resulted in a $210 refurbished Dell Inspiron, $99.99 refurbished Acer, and $229 Lenovo. 
  • Case Management System. As alluded to above, one of the most helpful tools you should rely upon is a cloud-based case management system. A case management system will allow you to access all your client records in one central location and from remote locations. 
  • Calendar. A physical calendar is not going to cut it these days. You need an electronic calendar that provides shared access to staff and colleagues. You can use a case management calendar, which would provide all users with access to a shared calendar. If you have Microsoft 365, you can share calendars through Outlook. Otherwise, start with a shared Google calendar, which is simple to set up, especially if you already have a Google account.
  • Cloud Storage. If you are currently storing documents on a computer hard drive in your office, now might be the time to move to a cloud storage system. Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and One Drive, all offer remote access to documents. In a pinch, you can open up an account, drop your active files into the account and access them from your home office. For security purposes, ensure that you use strong passwords and turn on two-factor authentication. 
  • VOIP Phone. If you have a landline in your office, inquire to your telephone provider whether you can forward those calls to your mobile phone. Or, consider setting up a VOIP phone. The simplest option is starting with Google Voice; a free service that provides you with a dedicated phone number and ports calls to your mobile device while masking your phone number. 
  • Backups. I’m a believer in the 3-2-1 backup strategy, which requires at least three copies of your data, two backup copies on different storage media, and one of them located offsite. If you are not already using a cloud backup provider, take a look at Wirecutter’s reviews of the best online cloud backups services, here. These online services are easy to implement. They require a download to your computer and then run autonomously in the background of your computer, backing up your work incrementally. 
  • eFax. If, for some unfortunate reason, you still need to use a fax machine, take the leap and migrate to an electronic fax service. Check out eFaxCompare for a comparison chart of many options. Most are cost-effective and some allow you to pay (pennies) per fax. Electronic fax is accomplished by scanning and web portal or email. No dedicated fax line and physical fax machine is necessary.
  • Internet Security. Hopefully, you have a secure internet setup in your office. But what about your home or anywhere else you might need to work from remotely? Check your home internet to ensure that you’ve changed the default passwords on your router and are using WPA2 encryption. Don’t use public internet unless you access it through a VPN such as Encrypt.me. Otherwise, use your phone as a mobile hotspot, thus allowing you to connect devices such as a laptop to your mobile data plan.

Longer Term

Once you prioritize your needs and action items and start to tackle those, you’ll be well on your way toward developing the beginnings of your disaster preparedness and business continuity plan. Once you can bring your head above water again, revisit your short term plans, review, and determine what else should be included. What did you learn for next time? Can you better document policies and procedures for human resources and administration, case management, technology, and operations? Have you migrated everything to a paperless format and moved to the cloud? 

While unanticipated events are never desired, they do present an opportunity for law firms to think in new ways about the future of their practice and make changes accordingly. It is impossible to plan for every situation. But, it is possible to have the tools in your pocket to pivot as necessary to ensure that your business survives even the most challenging of times. 

About the author

Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. is the Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she helps manage organization operations and leads the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). LOMAP provides free and confidential practice management assistance, guidance in implementing new law office technologies, and methods to attain healthy and sustainable practices. She is the author of Evernote as a Law Practice Tool, serves on the ABA’s TECHSHOW Planning Board, and founded the ABA’s Women of Legal Technology initiative. In 2017, Heidi was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism. She is a native Minnesotan, former collegiate ice hockey goaltender for the Amherst College Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and mother of three young children. She can be reached via email at heidi@masslomap.org, Twitter @heidialexander, or LinkedIn.





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