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Would You and Your Practice Survive These Common Disasters?

by Dan Pinnington

October 2005

None of us like to think about disasters, and most us have an “it won’t happen to me” attitude. This short quiz will help you determine your ability to survive some common “disaster” scenarios. 1

  1. If all of the computers in your office were stolen over the weekend, do you have all the serial numbers of the equipment, the original cost of the equipment, the value of the equipment, and the ability to recreate all of the data on the computers?
  2. If your office was completely destroyed by fire, how long would it take you to contact all of your clients, recreate all your computer data, contact your insurance company, process invoices, contact opposing counsel and generally get your practice operational again? Who would be responsible for performing each of these functions?
  3. If you had a heart attack tonight, are your files organized so that someone could pick up your caseload without your clients suffering any disadvantage?
  4. If you could suddenly not come into the office on Monday, have you designated the person who could pick up your caseload? Even if you have a partner, how much does he/she really know about your caseload?
  5. If you were unable to come into the office for a few days or weeks, could anyone actually find anything on your desk or in your files? Does the answer change if your assistant was off sick or away on vacation at the same time?
  6. If your secretary/legal assistant/bookkeeper suddenly quit, do you know their filing systems so that you can find information in their desks, in their (or your) files, or on their computers? Do you have copies or know where they keep the keys for filing cabinets, etc.? Do you know all their respective passwords (including voice mail, computer login, e-mail, the accounting package and any other software applications they use)?
  7. If one of your staff members disappeared with client trust funds, would you have sufficient records to determine what was taken and when?
  8. If you have a partner/associate who was suddenly disabled, do you or someone in your office know his/her schedule for the next three months? Do you or someone in your office know the status of all matters in your office?
  9. If you or a partner in your firm were disabled for an extended period of time, will you be able to draw a salary? If so, how much and for how long? If you are a sole practitioner and the only rainmaker, how will expenses of the firm be paid while you are out and unable to make rain?
  10. 10. If you were to die or be completely unable to return to work, what would your desk, client files, and office organization say about you to anyone who would have to step in to assume responsibility? What burdens would this place on your partners and spouse? Is this the way you want to be remembered?

If you were unable to answer all of these questions as quickly or as adequately as you would like, then you need to do some disaster recovery planning. Regardless of the size of your practice, you need to create an easy to implement plan which will assist you, or anyone in your office, if there were an unexpected practice interruption affecting you, your staff or your firm.

1 This was adapted, with permission, from Disaster Planning: Protecting Your Firm, Your Clients And Your Family, 2001, by Patricia Yevics, Director, Law Office Management Maryland State Bar Association, Inc.

Although you’re unlikely to ever experience a major, practice-ending disaster, the fact is disaster can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime. More likely you’ll have to be prepared to deal with a computer crash or loss of data, theft or malicious damage, fire or flood, or the loss of a key lawyer or staff person. And being prepared involves planning.

Why have a disaster recovery plan?

The better prepared you are to respond to an event that disrupts your practice, the faster you will have your firm back up and running, with minimal financial loss or service interruption. To ensure this continuity – and ability to bounce back quickly – you need a plan. That plan starts with a thorough assessment of your exposure, details how you will minimize the impact of each exposure on your practice, and provides a roadmap for how you will deal with all stages of an emergency or practice interruption.practicePRO has created a spreadsheet that you can use to help identify and assess your vulnerabilities. It is available for download at www.practicepro.ca/disasterrecovery.

To be successful, the plan needs the support of senior management, and the appropriate allocation of budget and resources. Put your plan in writing, and distribute it to all firm employees (and their family members, if appropriate) to ensure everyone is aware of how to prepare for, and respond to, a practice interruption.

Make two copies of your plan; keep one in the firm disaster recovery file, along with other critical information for responding to a disaster or interruption. Put the second in a secure, offsite location. Some firms post their plans and all supporting information on a secure web site.

How detailed should the plan be?

The larger the firm and the more complex its operations, the more detailed our plan likely will have to be. For example, large firms that have multiple offices often set up mirror servers, with all of the accompanying data and people issues to manage, while a small firm or sole practitioner might plan to work out of a home office.

As well, the level of detail in your plan will reflect the scope of your recovery planning efforts. Plans typically address two top priorities: the need to ensure the safety of your staff; and the need to recover your data centre and critical applications.

However, many firms today aim to have in place a well-designed and tested practice-wide recovery and continuity plan. This type of plan will address the following:

A minimal plan

Even if you do not plan to implement a full-scale recovery plan, you can minimize some of your exposures – at relatively little cost – through three very simple steps:

Is your own house in order?

Putting your personal house in order could help you and/or your partners deal with a firm emergency. In any emergency, quick access to certain pieces of personal information is essential. Prepare a list with the following critical personal information (if applicable):

  1. Name, address, passport, health card and social insurance numbers of you and your spouse or partner;
  2. All of your, and your spouse or partner’s, phone numbers (home, work, cell, pager, personal fax, cottage, etc.) and e-mail addresses;
    • drivers’ license and vehicle insurance information;
    • name, phone number and address of one or more emergency contacts;
    • other special contact numbers (e.g., daycare for your kids);
    • name, address and all phone numbers of your direct employees;
    • names, addresses and phone numbers of your personal representative, lawyer, accountant, physician and landlord;
    • location of your will, power of attorney and/or trust agreement; names, addresses, phone numbers, policy numbers, and contact persons for all insurance policies;
    • location, box number, and where to locate key to safe deposit box(es);
    • list of contents of safe deposit boxes and signatory information; and name, address, phone numbers, account numbers, signatory information on all business financial accounts.

You, and other key partners or employees in your office should have this information at their fingertips, including at your respective homes.

Make a photocopy of everything (both sides) in your wallet, and store this information in one or more safe locations that you or someone else could access. Include the 800 numbers for reporting lost credit cards. Having access to this information will save you many hours of work if your wallet is stolen or lost.

This is an excerpt from managing practice interruptions, a booklet prepared by the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (www.lawpro.ca). It provides a comprehensive review of the steps you can take to prepare for unexpected minor and major practice interruptions, and how you should respond to them. It also reviews how you can protect your people, your practice, and your premises and property. It is available at www.practicepro.ca/disasterrecovery .

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