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A trio of lawyers from Dechert were in a conference room in lower Manhattan when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. Like many people across the country, they wanted to tell their loved ones they were safe. But the phone lines were jammed. What happens when you can’t phone home? You e-mail it. That’s what the Dechert lawyers did that dismal Tuesday. They had shuffled into the R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co. printer’s office about 8 a.m. They were joined by two top officers of their client, auditors, bankers and underwriters counsel. They set out to proofread a registration statement for a stock offering. (Dechert declines to name the client because the registration was not public at press time.) They had read about three pages of the document when they heard the first plane strike the World Trade Center. They ditched their work and switched on the television. As Dechert partner Christopher Karras saw the television footage, and watched hundreds of people scurrying below, his first impulse was to tell his family he was OK. He reached for his BlackBerry wireless e-mail unit. (BlackBerry is made by Ontario, Canada-based Research in Motion Ltd.) “I don’t even remember picking up a land line,” says Karras. He typed a brief message to his wife, who was in Minneapolis, and his assistant in Philadelphia. “We are three blocks from the crash. Heard the plane go by and hit. All here OK,” read the message, titled “WTC,” and dated 8:58 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11. Karras’s instinct was a good one. Across New York City that day, telephone service was spotty to nonexistent. The BlackBerry and other handheld wireless e-mail devices, like two-way pagers, proved a lifeline to friends and loved ones. And to the office. Just moments after the second plane struck, the Dechert team evacuated the printer’s office on Park Place. They fled with their overnight bags (they’d spent the night at the nearby Millennium Hotel), their laptops and their BlackBerrys. But then there was the question of where to go. Dechert partner Sarah Gelb e-mailed a colleague at Dechert’s office at Rockefeller Center, a few miles to the north, saying the 15-person team was heading uptown. E-mails pouring through the BlackBerrys, though, revealed a different scene. The Rockefeller Center office soon closed. Firmwide messages from Dechert’s managing partner urged people to go home. Other news came in about the Pentagon attack. “We were refugees to nowhere,” says Gelb. Karras contacted his assistant in Philadelphia again through his BlackBerry. She asked Donnelly, the printer, for space in one of their uptown offices. Meanwhile, the team trudged uptown aimlessly, getting in touch with friends and family to tell them they were OK. Cell phones were hopeless. “I had only one e-mail failure during that whole period,” Gelb says. But almost all her cell phones went dead, she recalls. BlackBerrys were a relatively successful means of communication because of the switches they use to transmit data. The data are also more sparse than voice data. “In a heavily trafficked area, a single BlackBerry can talk to several antennas or towers simultaneously,” says Peter Belman, vice president of marketing and product management for Motient Corp., a wireless data network that transmits BlackBerry messages. (Motient is just one network carrier. Cingular, which Dechert uses, is another.) Of course, law firms didn’t start handing out BlackBerrys a few years ago as survival tools. They are highly convenient tools to keep in touch with clients, colleagues and the home office. Nearly one-third of the AmLaw 100 firms give BlackBerrys to their lawyers, according to a survey by AmLaw Tech, a sister publication of The National Law Journal. Eventually, the Dechert troops learned by e-mail that they could be housed in a Donnelly office in midtown. While trekking there, the team found a cab. A few people jumped in. The others straggled through on foot. Moments later, those who walked received e-mails from their colleagues in the cab. It was moving at a turtle’s pace, they said. They’d be joining the others on the streets. After a brief stopover at the Waldorf Astoria, the team made its way to the Donnelly offices on Park Avenue. By about 4 p.m. the Dechert team had read through the registration document. A little after 5 p.m. the Dechert lawyers hopped on an Amtrak train (they’d heard by cell phone that the trains were indeed running) and headed home. When Karras woke up in the morning, he found an e-mail on his BlackBerry, dated 1:40 a.m., saying the document had been printed. He had to wait until the markets opened the next week to file — and perhaps a lot longer before the issue would come to market.

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