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Law firm managers plan for the worst

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Like other businesses, law firms know it is vital to be able to serve clients during times of disaster. Locally, many firms have begun developing or have revisited business continuity plans – particularly after 2006 when a strong storm whipped through downtown Indianapolis and shattered the windows in a high-rise building, displacing several law firms.

disaster-15col.jpg The Regions Bank building sustained extensive damage during a storm in 2006, displacing several businesses and law firms. (File photo)

Managers responsible for creating their firms’ business continuity plans say that a good plan is flexible and adaptable for different scenarios, from technological failures to flu pandemics. A key element, they say, is for all firms to establish a communications plan so that employees, vendors, and clients can be contacted immediately when disaster strikes.

The first hours
Jeff McDermott, partner and a member of Krieg DeVault’s executive committee, was watching TV one evening when he saw some shocking footage. Instead of going downtown to see John Mellencamp perform, he and his wife decided to stay home and avoid what looked like an imminent storm. When the news came on that evening, he saw aerial shots of the Regions Bank building, a 36-story office tower in the heart of Indianapolis, its windows blown out.

“You could see water coming out of the building,” McDermott said. And then he realized the floors where Krieg DeVault’s offices were located – 27 through 29 – looked like they had sustained significant damage.

“The first thought I had was the other two members of our management committee aren’t even in town,” he said.

The storm hit on a Sunday night, when the building was empty and many of the firm’s employees were away on vacation. Because of that timing, many people had prepared in advance to be away from the office for a little while.

Monday morning, the firm had an emergency meeting at the Carmel office, where McDermott works. The firm librarian, human resources director, IT personnel, and others quickly developed a plan of action and contacted all the firm’s employees via a phone tree.

“During the first 24 hours, we were providing hourly updates,” McDermott said, adding that they didn’t communicate any information to their staff until they could independently confirm reports about the damage.

“We were able to work with building management to get our IT people in there on Monday to get the server up,” McDermott said. The firm had been relying more on digital files than paper so they didn’t lose any information, but they were concerned about private documents fluttering about on the sidewalks of downtown Indianapolis.

“It was a massive amount of debris that got sucked out of the building,” McDermott said. While the city sent front-end loaders to collect some of the desks and other large items that littered the streets, accounting firms and law firms were on the scene, scrambling to gather the confidential documents that had been swept from their offices.

mcdermott-jeff-mug.jpg McDermott

Unexpected challenges
Cohen & Malad was also a tenant of the Regions building in 2006. And while the firm had a business continuity plan in place, Administrator Jerry Abramowitz said it was “the things that we weren’t apprised of that really hurt us, and I now know the correct question to ask.”

Abramowitz said that the firm had to move to a temporary office space and did not know that their telephone vendor didn’t have access to the new space, which resulted in a lack of continuity in their phone service. By the time the firm found a new vendor and had ironed out all of the glitches, it was time to move back to the Regions building. Abramowitz strongly recommends that firms understand the limitations and capabilities of their vendors to avoid disruptions in service.

To avoid surprises like the one Cohen & Malad encountered, Michael Arnold, chief operating officer for Bingham McHale, enlisted the help of a consultant when putting together the firm’s preparedness plan.

The consultant conducted a “gap analysis,” Arnold said, which entails “looking for holes in our plan, where we may not have really thought things through in their entirety.”

Arnold oversees the plans for the firm’s three offices located in Indianapolis, Vincennes, and Jasper. He said that firm management meets quarterly to ensure disaster plans are current.

“It’s truly a process – I’m not sure you ever really come up with a final product,” he said.

Keeping the courts running
On Jan. 1, 2008, Administrative Rule 17 went into effect, which allows courts to petition for emergency assistance from the Indiana Supreme Court. On Jan. 25, 2008, a storm ripped the roof off the Morgan County Courthouse in Martinsville, and the court became the first in the state to appeal to the Supreme Court for help.

The rule states that county courthouses may ask the Supreme Court for relief from certain deadlines or rules of procedure. Courts that, by statute, are required to conduct business within a certain building or geographical area may ask for a suspension of that statute that enables the court to conduct business elsewhere temporarily.

As for the Supreme Court itself, Public Information Officer Kathryn Dolan said “We’ve never really had a true Supreme Court emergency … presumably the court would be able to make some adjustments, because we do have offices in multiple locations, and we have redundancies in place.”

Advice for other firms

arnold-michael-mug.jpg Arnold

McDermott said Krieg DeVault’s downtown staff squeezed into the Carmel office during the time the Regions building was being repaired. To ease overcrowding, the firm scheduled people in shifts and tried to make workers comfortable.

“We brought in breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for months,” McDermott said.

He said if possible, a firm should have some idea about where it will go if it cannot access its office. McDermott said he has heard some firms have set up partnerships, agreeing to take in each other’s staff in the event of disaster.

“When this happened to us, it was amazing – we received calls from all over the place … we were getting calls from different sources saying, ‘We’re here if you need help,’” he said.

McDermott also suggests making the plan available across multiple platforms. “Your disaster plan – you want it in writing, you want it off-site, you want it in multiple media on a PDA or a home computer so, regardless of the incident or accident, you have access to it,” he said.

McDermott has offered presentations for law firms about how to develop disaster preparedness plans. He said that having a thorough plan – especially considering the recent wave of deadly storms – just makes sense.

“We learned locally how in a few minutes your business can really be put in jeopardy,” he said.•
 

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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