After Harvey: Protecting Your Law Firm From Disaster

If you’re watching in horror as the flood from Hurricane Harvey plagues the Houston area, you may be wondering how individuals, local businesses and law firms even begin to deal with the losses they’re suffering.

The damage is sure to be in the billions of dollars. It’s overwhelming. But as we’ve learned in New Orleans, there are ways forward.

As a law firm leader, now is the time to do two things:

  • Consider sending any help you can to the people affected by Harvey’s wrath.
  • Review your OWN law firm’s crisis plan.

The images out of Texas raise raw memories for us in New Orleans.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina here, Firmidable and many other local businesses and organizations have developed best practices for confronting disasters.

We’re more than eager to share our experiences with everybody — so hopefully you’re in the best position possible when the unthinkable happens.

Why You Need To Plan

Lesson No 1 is not to rule out the unthinkable.

Maybe the area where you live and work seems low risk. Perhaps you’re far from coastlines and hurricanes.

But what about tornados, floods from record-setting rains, wildfires or earthquakes?

What if an emergency prevents you from being able to access your office? What if your local client base gets scattered in an evacuation?

And it doesn’t take a regional disaster — or one that makes national news — to experience a crisis that would be just as devastating for you individually, such as your office building catching on fire.

Because catastrophes can seem so unlikely and unreal, it’s easy to get lulled into a sense that nothing too terrible will happen.

Houston has never seen anything like Harvey. No one living in New Orleans in 2005 had ever seen anything like the fallout from Katrina.

Most hurricanes seemed to miss us. Or they threatened us but turned out to be more disruptions than disasters.

Then Katrina passed our way, and our levees failed with catastrophic results.

When disaster did strike, Firmidable’s office was in a spot that didn’t flood.

That made us more fortunate than thousands of others. But it didn’t spare us from a major crisis.

Phones, electricity and every kind of service and business went down all around us.

We had to evacuate and work from a temporary location for six weeks.

Compared with many businesses, our displacement was short.

But it became abundantly clear that everybody on our team needed a written plan to consult in just this situation.

How to Plan and Prepare: 4 Steps

Here’s a model for how you can go about planning for the worst, so you come through a trauma in the best possible shape:

Step 1: Gather emergency information and put it all in writing.

Write down where your law firm’s leadership will go, if needed, to set up temporary operations.

Equip your team to work remotely and explain how that process will work.

Outline specific duties different team members will execute during and after a crisis, such as securing certain items from the office, sending messages about your firm’s status to clients and helping establish a temporary office.

Factor in time your people will need to protect their properties and families.

Discuss when everyone should make contact with you to report their whereabouts and resume working.

Collect everyone’s alternative contact information — emails, cell phones, phone numbers for family and friends who serve as emergency contacts and any other relevant ways to reach your people — and make sure everyone has a copy of those contacts.

After Katrina, cell phones from our own area code stopped working no matter where we were, underscoring the need for multiple modes of contact.

At Firmidable, we issue a binder to everyone including all of this emergency information.

Parts of the binder are the same for everyone. Other parts give directions for specific individuals in their particular roles.

Step 2: Get your data backup in order.

Get an offsite backup system for your crucial data.

You may have a backup system in place, but make sure it’s good for more than just recovering from individual equipment failures.

Maybe you regularly back up each person’s desktop so you’re covered in case somebody’s machine crashes.

But if you keep the backup data on site, you could lose it all when your entire office goes down.

Step 3: Actually read your insurance policies.

You should have business interruption insurance. And you should know what it covers.

Policies might cover the loss of equipment. But what about the loss of revenue?

In the early days after Katrina, Firmidable founder and President Nathan Chapman ran into a New Orleans lawyer at a restaurant — waiting tables.

It was an odd sight, so Chapman asked him about it.

The lawyer said all of his clients were gone, evacuated far away.

He still had a mortgage to pay. And, he said, “Right now this city needs waiters more than it needs lawyers.”

Firmidable was spared the same problem as that lawyer because our law firm clients are spread all across the United States, not concentrated in New Orleans.

But if our revenue had taken a hit, business interruption insurance would’ve helped us bridge the gap until operations started to ramp up again.

We still faced a scramble for temporary office space. Thousands of other businesses were scrambling, too.

How did we pay for the temporary headquarters? Business interruption insurance paid the rent.

You also need to consider whether you will cover housing costs for employees who report to work in a different location.

Many companies do that. Some employees might expect it.

Make sure everyone is clear on what will happen.

Step 4: Review your plan annually.

Over time, your people change. Your law firm’s circumstances change. Technology changes. Emergency plans from local officials change.

And every emergency is different. The most recent one tends to inform the response to the next one.

This is why you need to review all of your plans every year.

At Firmidable, we hold one day a year where everyone works remotely.

It’s a practice run.

We use it to test our systems and look for glitches that need fixing.

It’s also a time to educate — or refresh — our employees so they understand our emergency procedures and consider their own personal plans in the event of a disaster.

When You’re the Fortunate One…

And if you’re watching the flood on TV — instead of watching it rise in your living room or office lobby — don’t underestimate how much you could help from afar.

Help from people all over America, including a lot of people from Houston and Texas, was vital in lifting New Orleans from the aftermath of Katrina.

New Orleans still feels the effects of Katrina 12 years later. But in many ways, it has also achieved an inspiring renaissance.

No doubt whatsoever that Texans also will show us their strength.

The New York Times summarized what they’re up against:

“In the long term, Texas is likely to face a massive, multibillion-dollar rebuilding effort that may affect a generation — and what is sure to be a daunting and sometimes depressing era of government trailers, red tape and fights with bureaucrats and insurance companies.”

That sounds too familiar.

So please seek out your favorite relief organization to offer support, or consult one of the many articles online listing ways you can help.

Let’s get our Texas neighbors past this.

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About the Author: Mark Waller

Mark Waller is the senior writer/editor at Firmidable. He has written book-length websites for law firms, enhanced content on dozens of law firm sites for search engine optimization, written and optimized law firm Paid Search ads and developed scripts for law firm TV ads—helping firms across America grow their caseloads. Before he started in legal marketing, Mark’s writing and communications career included working for a university president and as a local journalist. He was a member of the staff at The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

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