Hurricane season is here again. With the right preparation, law firms that plan ahead can help keep personnel safe, maintain focus on clients and minimize possible threats from a variety of disasters.
When Hurricane Ike swept through Houston in 2008, much of the city was left without electricity for weeks. When 2017’s Hurricane Harvey dumped torrential rains on the city, thousands lost their homes and businesses.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 70 percent chance that the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season will produce 10 to 16 named storms, of which five to nine could develop into hurricanes. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes.
Texas has repeatedly borne the brunt of such storms, and a recent New York Times article identified the Texas coastline as one of the places in the U.S. where disasters frequently strike. Why should law firms care? The No. 1 reason smaller firms go out of business within two years of a disaster is an exodus of key clients to competitors. In the business world, after a disaster closes a business more than 40 percent of affected businesses never reopen.
It’s not a question of if another disaster will hit Texas or your firm. It’s when. And, more importantly: Will your firm be ready?
Prepping for the Worst
Preparation has a high return on investment. It’s paramount for your firm to have a documented emergency response plan containing contact details for all employees, clients, vendors and building management, details about insurance coverage and emergency procedures.
Certain personnel, known collectively as a “Crisis Response Team,” will be critical to maintaining essential operations during a crisis. The CRT members should be fully conversant in the emergency response plan. Testing your firm’s business continuity and telecommuting plans ahead of a disaster can help ensure all elements work flawlessly or identify procedures to adjust. Communication methods, such as automated-calling technology, can allow firms to disseminate consistent information to employees.
Without access to data, it is difficult to carry out many of an attorney’s tasks. If possible, maintain a backup of the firm’s server in a location unlikely to sustain damage or have data stored in the cloud. As an extra precaution, attorneys and the firm’s management team can have remote-working back-up plans available with internet connectivity and power. Also, partners can have generators at their homes and various wifi sources as options. Scanned copies of documents make it possible to access information remotely, and come with the added bonus of reducing storage costs.
Don’t forget to maintain an inventory of assets, along with current supporting video, which should be stored online or offsite. For further ideas on responding to an emergency, your local, state and national bar associations and governmental agencies have online information for planning and recovery.
In short, hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
Looking After Your People
In the event that a storm hits, a firm’s priority is to make sure the people who work at the firm are safe and secure. Set up systems that allow employees to continue with their lives to help them through disaster recovery when their worlds may have been turned upside down. Often, people deeply appreciate the sense of normalcy—and the air conditioning—a stable work environment offers when recovering from storm impacts.
After Hurricane Ike, a sister office in another city helped smooth the rough edges of storm recovery for my firm when they sent us crucial supplies and rallied their troops to assist us. Having that support during the day at work made it easier to go home to a house without electricity and air conditioning for two weeks when late-summer temperatures were still scorching.
Storms may put a pause on operations, but legal needs never stop. Your firm may serve clients in areas that were unaffected by the disaster, and the risks that led them to find your legal expertise likely remain urgent. Any hour that you are out of work is a billable hour that is potentially unrecoverable, even with business interruption insurance coverage.
Part of recovery is having good backup systems in place, as well as preparation and planning. But you cannot get back to work until you know and document the full extent of the damage and find, if necessary, an alternate office for work in the interim.
It’s important to remember hurricanes are not the only threat to legal firms. Tornadoes, fires, sabotage, or a partner’s departure or death are also potental threats.
With solid plans in place and an unstinting focus on employee safety and client assistance following a disaster, you can weather the storms that come your firm’s way.
John Meredith is the chief operating officer at Chamberlain Hrdlicka, with offices in Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Philadelphia.