IBA: When Disaster Strikes

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Icepocalypse 2011 is finally beginning to melt. Thankfully, no local practitioners experienced damage to their offices due to collapsed roofs or other storm damage. However, if they had what were the chances they had a disaster plan in place to deal with the aftermath? In most cases, it is likely none exists.

Numerous sample disaster plans have been published over the years. Though the details vary the key elements are universal.

1. Assess your situation. Photograph or videotape the damage for insurance purposes.

2. Utilizing the call list of employees stored off-site, contact all employees. Notify them of the anticipated status and make assignments.

3. Determine how the practice will communicate with the courts, other lawyers, staff, clients, and vendors. This could involve setting up an emergency hotline and recorded message, or arranging for a forwarding number. Keep in mind that after a disaster, it is often easier to make outgoing calls than to receive incoming ones. Therefore, it may be necessary to designate a contact outside the disaster zone who can act as a clearinghouse for information.

4. As needed, appoint liaisons from your office to work with each of the following entities:

Building management
Fire/Police department
Emergency management or other government agencies
Utility companies
Insurance agent
Key vendors
Post office

5. Seek immediate professional help to recover and repair of your computer system. Your main priority is the data, not the equipment. Remember, that while motors and circuitry in your system may have been damaged, the hard drive itself is vacuum-sealed. More likely than not, the data stored on the drive can be recovered. If the above efforts are not sufficient, it may be necessary to send your drive to a data recovery company. If you can recover your data, transfer it to a new system as soon as possible.

6. Gather up all available paper records and begin the process of assessing damage, sorting, and prioritizing restoration. Paper records damaged by water will begin to deteriorate within two to three hours; mold, fungal, and bacterial growth will occur within 24 hours. Specific procedures must be followed in order to properly dry or freeze documents. (Freezing will preserve paper for up to six years for later drying.) For help with document reclamation procedures, contact your insurance agent, who can refer you to a professional service. Consider bypassing restoration if back-up records are available.

7. Keep an inventory of anything that must be destroyed or removed from the premises for drying by a commercial service. For client documents, track:
Client/matter name
Items destroyed
Inclusive dates
Reason destroyed

8. Arrange for temporary office space, if necessary. Depending on the size and location of your firm, possibilities include hotels, motels, trailers, recreational vehicles, space in other law firms with which you have reciprocal agreements, space in your satellite office, other suitable space in your existing building, or space in your home. Post a sign at your old office directing people to your temporary location. Consider advertising that temporary location in the local newspaper, and encourage clients to contact you to touch base. Be sure that anyone answering the phone informs all callers of your new location.

9. Contact your property manager to review your lease.

10. Create stationery and business cards for your temporary address. Send notice of your current street address, email address, telephone, and fax numbers. Be sure to notify the state and local bar.

11. Lease equipment or permanently replace damaged items (computers, network servers, printers, fax machines, copier, postage meter, desks, chairs, dictation equipment, typewriters, etc.)

12. Locate the off-site copy of your active client list and contact your clients. If you don’t have an off-site client list, work with your staff to try to recreate it before time lapses and you forget.

13. Start a new calendar. Begin filling in important appointments and deadlines as they become known. If possible, work with the courts to review dockets or sources.

14. Contact the courts and opposing counsel as needed. Make collecting outstanding receivables a priority.

15. Begin replacing lost paper records and client documents. Besides clients, other sources for reconstructing records include the courts, opposing counsel, administrative agencies, and the firm’s CPA and payroll service.

16. Repair, sterilize, and dry the areas where records are to be stored – shelving, cabinets, desks. (Carpet, carpet padding, or liners must be dried and treated for mold and mildew or replaced.) Investigate tile or other flooring for similar damage. Continue inspecting damaged areas for mold, mildew, and other damage for at least one year.

17. Rebuild your form library. First on your priority list should be an intake or new client information form. The data on the forms can then be used for reestablishing conflict and other office systems. Many forms may be found on the Indianapolis Bar Association Members Only webpages.

18. Get sources for legal research on the Internet (Lexis, WestLaw, etc.) up and running In the meantime, arrange to use the local law library or university library “ or coordinate with another law firm in the area.

19. Exercise case and client control. Resist the urge to take on all new matters that may come to you until you can adequately screen for conflicts.

20. Submit an insurance claim for the damages your office sustained.

21. Determine your eligibility for other forms of emergency relief and submit a claim.•


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