Expect the Unexpected

[originally published in Law Technology News, September 1, 2002]

The Boys Scouts motto is “Be Prepared,” and there are many reasons why businesses should take this to heart.

Law firms in particular need to be mindful of the susceptibility of their client and intellectual information to damage by extraordinary circumstances. When a firm creates a business continuity plan (a.k.a., a contingency or disaster plan), it removes the “unexpected” component from most crises and gives the firm the best chance for survival.

Although technology is not the only issue addressed by a plan, the increasing reliance on technology for communications and data storage by law firms makes it an essential element. A well-thought out and tested disaster plan should be one of the tools that the law firm has in place, like a good data backup procedure, to ensure their ability to deliver legal services.

Not Alone

Law firms are not alone at being exposed to business crises, nor are they unusual in not having planned for them in advance. In May 2001, Disaster Recovery Journal reported that more than 65 percent of respondents indicated in a survey that their business continuity plan had not been enacted in 10 years.

A 2002 Informationweek survey found that just over half of companies surveyed had a business continuity plan in place. In contrast, just over 40 percent of respondents to the American Bar Association’s 2001 Legal Technology Survey reported that they had a disaster control plan.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the likelihood that a plan existed grew with the firm size. Of respondents from law firms with 150 or more attorneys, 90 percent indicated they have a plan, but only 30 percent of respondents at law firms with five or fewer had one.

The aftermath of a particularly traumatic disaster can cause two perspectives to emerge in relation to disaster planning. On the one hand, the disaster is so extraordinary that it is felt that you cannot plan for it. On the other, the disaster is so extraordinary that it could not “happen to me” and so there is no need to plan for it.

When constructing a disaster plan, it is more appropriate to look at the disaster effects than the disaster itself. You can visualize a number of reasons why electricity to your law offices might be disrupted, whether a terrorist attack, a thunderstorm, or an errant street repair crew. The effect you can plan for is the loss of power and what it will do to your systems:

āˆš Do you have uninterrupted power to your data and other critical devices?

āˆš Do you have an alternate source of power in the event of a longer term outage?

When your plan distills the business disruptions in this way, it is easy to see that a power outage could happen to any firm: a California firm might experience it due to an earthquake and the Kansas firm might suffer the effects of a tornado.

Where to get started? You can find a number of free resources on the Web, giving sample business continuity plans and other tools for developing plans. If your law firm went through the process of developing a plan to prepare for the Year 2000, you may already have the kernel of a plan that can be updated.

Among the many government resources, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a checklist for businesses preparing for a plan (fema.gov/ofm/bc.shtm).

Once you have your plan, be sure to test it. As with data backup, once you have that backup tape you want to be sure you can recover data from it. Make sure your plan works as expected and that any issues you have overlooked or that need refining are included in your revised plan. Revisit your plan on a regular basis and include unscheduled tests of that plan, like a fire drill, to ensure that you can respond to any extraordinary event that comes your way.

 

About the 2001 ABA Legal Technology Survey: The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC) has performed regular research on the use of technology by the legal profession. A 33-page survey questionnaire was mailed in November 2001 to 9000 ABA members in private practice in the United States. Attorneys, rather than I.T. directors or other law firm staff, were identified to be sure that the responses indicated technology use from the user’s perspective. The participants returned the survey to a research company that tabulated the data for the LTRC. 671 attorneys responded to the survey, just over 50 percent coming from firms with five or fewer attorneys and 20 percent from firms with 41 or more attorneys.

The survey covered a variety of topics and was sponsored by IBM Corp., Summation Legal Technologies, and West Group. The survey results were published in Aug. 2002 in five volumes, each with a specific technology focus. The information within each report reflects all responses and is often presented to reflect use of technology by firm size. The five reports cover Law Office Technology, Litigation and Courtroom Technology, Mobile Lawyers, Online Research, and Web and Communication Technology.

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