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When Hurricane Andrew blew away Robert Zinn’s car dealership in 1992, he decided it was time to put his degree from Cornell Law School to full-time use. Fourteen years later, as the chief operating shareholder of Akerman Senterfitt, he’s still worried about the weather. The beginning of the 2006 hurricane season is just weeks away, and Akerman Senterfitt and others in the target zones are gearing up for what some predict will be a ferocious few months. With lessons learned from last year’s hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastation, and from a particularly wild season in 2004, law firms are on heightened alert for Mother Nature’s wrath this year. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1. “You hope for the best and plan for the worst,” said Zinn, who practices from the Miami location of 400-attorney Akerman Senterfitt. The firm has other Florida offices in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Tampa, Tavares and West Palm Beach. “There’s not a place in the state of Florida where you could move to and avoid it,” he said. Akerman Senterfitt, like some other law firms in hurricane-prone areas, has spent big money on outfitting a remote global data center, which houses all of the firm’s electronic functions and information in what is designed to be a disaster-proof site. Located in Minnesota, the facility duplicates the firm’s e-mail, billing, electronic case files and other information and warehouses those functions in the bunker-style site. Zinn estimates the cost of establishing the disaster recovery system for Akerman Senterfitt at $1.5 million. The firm used Thomson West to set up a location in Minnesota, instead of centralizing duplicating functions in one of its offices and hoping that any storms miss that location. The facility, he said, also is tornado-proof. This year’s hurricane season, which will last until November, is expected to be intense. ‘New era of storms’ “We’re in this new era of storms,” said William Gray, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. Gray said that the cycle of powerful hurricane seasons “could go on for another 15 to 20 years if the future is like the past.” Gray expects nine hurricanes this year. The average is six. He also predicts that five of those will be major hurricanes. Overall, he looks for nearly twice as much hurricane activity in 2006 than normally expected. Where those storms may hit depends upon the steering currents, he explained. Those currents, he said, determine whether storms will “recurve” eastward and miss much of the United States or whether they will make landfall on the Southeast. Making predictions about the directions of the storms is a much tougher call than predicting the number of storms, he said. Carlton Fields hopes that it is prepared. Chief Executive Officer Gary Sasso said that the law firm has made significant changes to its disaster recovery plans. The 225-attorney firm has Florida offices in Tampa, Miami, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Tallahassee and St. Petersburg. It has established what Sasso called a “hot site” at its Atlanta office. From there, servers will replicate functions in the firm’s other locations should disaster strike. It also has reconfigured its e-mail system so that one office outage does not affect the entire firm’s communication. In addition, the firm has in place satellite phones accessible by firm leaders. Sasso, who declined to put a price tag on the firm’s disaster-recovery program, attributed it to “the cost of doing business.” No bedrock assumptions Dennis Kennedy, a technology consultant and attorney in St. Louis, said that firms can expect to spend up to 10% of their annual budgets on disaster plans. “It’s a healthy expenditure in any year that someone takes it on,” he said. More firms, he said, are setting up off-site recovery centers like Akerman Senterfitt’s because they realize that no office is completely immune from calamity, whether from storms, or worse. “Before 9/11 and the hurricanes, you had these bedrock assumptions that at least your building would still be there,” he said, adding that now “they have the notion that storing data in some secure facility underneath some mountain is beneficial.” Kennedy cautions firms about becoming complacent with recovery plans. The lessons provided by hurricanes or other devastating events often fade in the minds of firm leaders, who put off taking the time to implement plans, he said. Kennedy, who writes frequently about law office technology, advises law firms to have a “full-blown written plan” for disaster recovery. In addition, he said that firms tend to focus on e-mail functions in their plans, and may not sufficiently provide contingency arrangements for accounts payable and receivable and for tracking billable hours. He added that sometimes firms pay too much attention to backing up data but not enough to developing ways to access the data if a disaster occurs. Kennedy also warns that firm management should maintain a working knowledge of their disaster plans. Frequently, he said, they delegate the responsibility to the firm’s technology professionals without understanding it themselves. That approach can create problems if employees leave. It can also backfire in an emergency, if management and technology staffers haven’t developed the plan together. “When the disaster comes, [firm leaders] need to make a decision right then and there. The [information technology] person’s plans can get thrown out the window,” he said. Finally, he tells firms to make long-term plans: “Look at disasters as not just a day or two. What happens if bird flu means that no one is coming down to the office? What happens if employees don’t come back?” he said. Looking at the long term GrayRobinson has modified its disaster plans to focus on the long term. The 183-attorney law firm, with locations across Florida, has coordinated a system so that offices not affected by a disaster can assist those put out of commission. “With every storm, we’ve learned something new,” said Cheryl Bennett, director of information services for the firm. While technology disruptions last season presented their own set of difficulties, she said, dealing with employees who couldn’t get to work because of gas shortages provided the greatest challenge. Now, the firm has in place support networks for employees so that workers at one location can assist others by providing housing, transportation, generators and more, should the need arise. The firm also established plans for operations should disaster strike more than one office. “We’re more adaptive, more prepared,” she said.

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