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Disaster Preparedness for Lawyers and Law Firms
By:  Teresa Schiller

Following disasters like Hurricane Harvey, lawyers have stepped up to help victims.  Skills that we refined in law school—thinking quickly under pressure, managing projects, and solving problems—are in high demand at times like these.

A Texas lawyer now, I am reminded of my experience in New York helping 9/11 victims.  Many of us in the New York legal community—people throughout the city and beyond—wanted to provide relief.  We were able to help many families and business victims recover and rebuild.  This experience yielded lessons in disaster preparedness for lawyers and law firms.

1.  Protect your team and business.

Most importantly, take steps to protect your team and business.

First, make a plan regarding team members in the event of a disaster.  For example, keep a contact list off-site so that you can reach out to everyone to find out if they are safe.  Let team members know the procedure for reporting an emergency.  Designate a place off-site for the team to meet if the office is damaged during the workday.  Relief organizations such as the American Red Cross may have additional information and training.

Second, make a plan to ensure business continuity.  Designate an emergency chain of command.  Set up your computer system so that team members can work remotely.  Back up data off-site.  Store hard-copy files in as safe a place as possible.  Compile an inventory list and receipts for office property, and store them off-site.  Obtain insurance and understand what it covers.  Consult with your information technology provider and insurance carrier for more information and training.

2.  Prepare to contact clients.

Prepare to contact clients if disaster strikes.  Keep a contact list of clients off-site.  Preliminarily draft an initial e-mail to send out to them.  Plan how to keep them updated about their matters.

3.  Clarify procedures for accepting new matters.

Clarify internal procedures for accepting new matters.  Using your firm’s standard intake procedure, make a list of client/matter intake steps.  After a disaster, it is possible that team members will be handling intake for the first time.  For example, associates may be opening new matters instead of partners.  It is helpful to clarify procedures such as the following:  (1) who needs to approve each matter; (2) how to run a conflicts checks; (3) what form of engagement letter to use; and (4) how a file should be set up.

4.  Contact disaster responders in your area.

Contact disaster responders in your area to find out about any existing disaster plans, obtain training materials, and build relationships.  Municipalities, counties, bar associations, legal-aid organizations, and relief organizations may have disaster plans.  If you can anticipate how they will react, you will be better able to help victims.  In addition, they may have training materials for you to review and keep on file.  Finally, building relationships with representatives of these organizations now may facilitate communication when tensions run high.

5.  Contact other lawyers.

Contact other lawyers to explore possible mentoring and co-counseling relationships.  Following disasters, victims may face challenges spanning multiple areas of law (e.g., public benefits, business, probate, real estate, landlord/tenant, insurance, and bankruptcy).  Partnering with experts in particular areas of law may reduce or eliminate your learning curve and enhance the quality of representation.

Hopefully, these lessons learned in the wake of 9/11 will help lawyers and law firms to prepare for future disasters.  Preparation increases the chance that our lawyering skills and experience can be put to good use!

Teresa Schiller is a business and employment lawyer in Waco at Beard Kultgen Brophy Bostwick & Dickson, PLLC. While practicing law at another law firm in New York, she coordinated the firm’s volunteer response and represented victims in the wake of 9/11. She can be contacted via email.


Views and opinions expressed in eNews are those of their authors and not necessarily those of the Texas Young Lawyers Association or the State Bar of Texas.

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