Houston’s flooded streets due to Hurricane Harvey.
Photo: IrinaK/Shutterstock.com

Having a business continuity plan and internal communication ahead of time helped legal organizations weather the storm.

Houston-based law firms both large and small as well as technology providers with offices in the region appear to have been largely able to keep operations going as flood waters crippled much of the city.

Despite Hurricane Harvey, law offices and legal sector businesses used remote operations and advanced technology, though many of their employees could not temporarily reach downtown offices.

It was essential, they said, that the businesses and firms prepared ahead of time. For example, Tracee Whitley, Norton Rose Fulbright’s U.S. chief of operations, told Legaltech News that “days ahead of the storm, we asked our Houston-based … personnel to take home their assigned laptops and confirm remote connectivity to avoid last-minute support issues.”

“We reached out to colleagues in our offices both in the U.S. and globally to make sure that they would be available to provide additional resources for support functions. We also gave advance notice to our disaster recovery co-location facility and our off-site help desk provider regarding possible impacts of the storm,” Whitley added. “We kept in contact with the building management company regarding status of the physical space and services.” No system outages or significant support issues were raised, according to Whitley.

In addition, the firm’s office incident management team, which consists of senior partners as well as representatives from multiple business services departments, participated in daily status calls covering personnel impacts and business continuity.

“We used emails, automated alerts and intranet postings to provide daily updates across the firm,” Whitley said. “Being able to account for all of our people through our automated alert system was extremely valuable, as their safety is our top priority.”

Similarly, Tim Armstrong, chief operating officer at Vinson & Elkins, told Legaltech News the firm has “fully redundant data centers housing all firm systems, including telecom, so we don’t require a physical office to function.”

“We never had any system compromised,” he added. “We did see remote access escalate dramatically during the event, but we are engineered to support a very high level of remote activity via VPN [virtual private network] and VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] technologies. They all performed as expected.”

Armstrong also noted the firm has what he describes as a “very detailed, and well-maintained, BCP [business continuity plan]/DR [disaster recovery] plan that we developed after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, and we follow that plan with any named storm in the Gulf [of Mexico]. We started taking action to prepare as soon as Harvey was announced.”

“That plan addresses staging key staff in specific locations, reminders to firm personnel about remote access, etc., so they are prepared for being out of the office for an extended period of time,” he explained.

Whitley also noted that it’s beneficial to have “sample communications prepared ahead of time. I would emphasize the importance of having communication content drafted for varying levels of impact, from minimal [a delayed opening or half-day closure] to significant [days or weeks of impact].”

“Business continuity is achievable by having early and frequent communication, established remote working policies and procedures, prepared systems and resource coverage and a cross-training of key IT functions,” Whitley said. “Our people who were not affected by Harvey continued to work remotely. With today’s technology, the productivity of a lawyer or business services professional is not dependent upon being in the office.”

Armstrong said that “over the past year or so we have also transitioned to many teleworking roles for administrative personnel across many areas. This helped tremendously. We had no material lapse in any process. All material operational roles were covered—from technical support and training, to billing, to completing payroll functions and preparing for month end—when the storm hit.”

In addition, the firm’s lawyers “were able to support our clients with no interruption, and firm operations continued as all would expect,” Armstrong said.

This planning for disruption extended to the legal technology world. Shaun Cutter, chief technology officer for Epiq, said the company’s Houston office has over 100 employees and a document review center, but “our center was briefly unreachable due to flood waters.”

“While the office itself lost a physical connection to the network, employees were able to get into systems remotely and continue to service our clients. No team was ever without access to critical systems,” Cutter explained.

The company had a business continuity plan in place and executed it. “Matters were moved around our platform based on critical client deadlines,” Cutter said. “Timely, frequent and pragmatic communication with clients and employees is a must and occurred regularly.”

When asked about the hurricane, Shahzad Bashir, president and CEO of Morae Global Corp., stressed that a major disaster is not the time to initially use such technology.

He explained that technology needs to be “built into the day-to-day behavior and processes,” as well as strategy of a firm or company. For instance, lawyers can often use video conferencing rather than always taking jets to meetings, as many transactions can be done without physical contact.

His company also spreads storage and technology across the U.S., ensuring through decentralization that “we don’t have a single point of failure,” he said.

Cutter identified some lessons for other organizations from the disaster. These include:

1. It is critical to have a business continuity plan in place in advance, and regularly test it. The BCP should include a prenegotiated contract/agreement with a physical restoration company dealing with office space and physical items, including paper and physical records.

2. The RM strategy should include a vital records program that identifies not only critical systems but vital data/physical records and a strategy for dispersal (physical and virtual) to ensure any localized catastrophe will not wipe out an organization’s ability to protect its rights and meet its obligations.

3. Any major organization needs geographic diversity, so primary and backup data centers should be in different locations. For instance, Epiq has thousands of miles between primary and backup data centers.

4. In Houston, the amount of flooding was unusually high so service was lost from electrical providers. So, data centers should be self-dependent in energy production. The amount of water that fell was over the height of most diesel generators—many stopped working. Data centers with generators on the building’s roof, rather than at ground level, would have had a greater chance of working.

And then, of course, there is the attitude of employees themselves. Despite the severity of the natural disaster, Bashir praised the region’s wider response to the hurricane and tragic flooding.

“We as a community have really responded well,” he said. “Technology has played a huge part … through the crisis.”