Don't Brick Your Practice

[originally posted on Slaw.ca, July 4, 2011]

The term “brick” in computer parlance means to turn an otherwise usable computer into a useless piece of silicon and plastic. As a careful lawyer, you are already planning for disaster by performing regular backups, protecting your online and personal computer accounts with strong passwords, and so on. There are places in where your law practice software and hardware overlaps with your meatspace, where you become the cause of your law practice becoming a brick.

I liked how a panel on business continuity at the recent Law Society Solo and Small Firm Conferenceemphasized the mundane over the dramatic. Hardware failure is more likely than a hurricane for most law firms. One panelist talked about the impact of personal illness on a law practice, another frequent occurrence that can have a devastating impact on a solo practice where there is no plan for backup or redundancy in services.

Cancelling Your Subscription

The lawyer incapacitated by illness made me wonder about cloud computing when the lawyer is the source of the service outage. The benefit of cloud-based systems is that a lawyer can provide for a backup lawyer to have access to the systems in case of an emergency. There would be no need to get a file or computer disk to a colleague when the lawyer may not be in a position to enable that access.

What about the monthly payment, though, for a subscription-based service? That is another benefit of cloud computing, enabling a lawyer to purchase access rather than paying more up front for an installed product. A lawyer using services paid for on a monthly basis should be planning for what happens when the monthly payment doesn’t occur. If you are paying month-to-month and you are unable to authorize the payment, what happens to your online account and data?

Make sure you understand what your late payment terms are, how long you have to bring your payment back into balance, and what happens to your account if it is deleted. Are there any backups? Is it there but just inaccessible for a period of time? You may feel more comfortable with an automatic payment system, like a credit card or automatic debit from your business account. You could also commit to a longer subscription, although your illness may still come with the invoice. A lawyer should have a plan to ensure that payments for important business systems can continue through illness or other emergencies that remove the lawyer-as-business-decision-maker from the practice.

Don’t Die

This is perhaps a bit unfair to ask, but a lawyer’s death has obvious repercussions on a practice well beyond the sad fact of the death. Death is a certainty for most of us and one of the critical technology impacts of a lawyer death will be access to electronic information. What passwords did the lawyer use to access critical practice systems, whether in the office or in the cloud? What were those systems?

Write your passwords down. If you use a master password system, like Keepass or KeepassX, write down your master password. The security issue related to writing down your password isn’t the writing, it is the way the written password is stored. Don’t store it adjacent to the computer, put it with other information you value, like your credit cards. Lock your written password in the safe or location where you store other resources (backup tapes, your will) that have vital importance to your practice and its continuity, and that are likely to be checked in event you are incapacitated.

Make Yourself Redundant

Sometimes you brick your system despite your best intentions. Be prepared for that situation. If your law firm has servers that contain all firm data on them, test and restore the data on a regular basis. Purchase some extra hardware (like spare hard drives) so that if you have a failure, you can quickly replace them and get back up and running. Compare the cost of having an extra server or hardware with the cost of lost business, missed deadlines, and goodwill in the 3 to 5 days you might have in downtime.

Even when you have a business continuity plan, you may find that the service level you had expected as part of your plan doesn’t actually happen. Maybe your local computer support isn’t as available as you expected because they are already committed to other clients or need to order parts when your emergency occurs. Or perhaps you didn’t maintain copies of one particular program or upgrade that you need to get back up and running.

Solos may want to think about how they can create a backup for themselves, so that a lawyer can be provided with access and passwords to the necessary client data to ensure that their practice continues in unexpected circumstances.

bricked system is not a dead end. It is a disruption. If the system is your law practice, the disruption can be substantial or it can be minimal depending on how well you have planned for it. Your law practice technology may require special planning to ensure that it doesn’t become an obstacle to your practice’s business continuity.

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