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As we watched Hurricane Michael devastate Florida’s Gulf Coast region this autumn, it reminded us that it’s critical that your practice has an emergency action plan in case disaster strikes. A hurricane at least gives you time to prepare for when it hits, but other disasters — natural, terrorism-related, technological, medical — move faster, leaving no time to prepare on the fly.
Your law firm needs a plan in place before a disaster strikes, and you need a strategy for how to deal with the fallout after a disaster leaves destruction in its wake.

Before the storm

There are real risks to not having a plan. If you or a lead attorney in your firm is incapacitated, it creates a leadership vacuum. Who is in charge to make critical decisions? Without a written protocol, your staff is left wondering, “What do we do now?” And clients may suffer from a loss of their personal information and case files.

In devising an emergency action plan, a place to start is by brainstorming the worst-case scenarios. Imagining the worst thing that could happen will help your office devise a strategy to deal with the disaster. What happens if a fire breaks out that can’t be contained? What if there’s a hazardous waste spill near your office? What if a tornado hits? What if civil unrest makes it unsafe to be in your office?

In creating an emergency action plan, every employee should have a list of your firm’s staff, contact numbers and emergency contacts for each. Update it at least quarterly — and anytime you hire or lose a staff member. Have a map that shows evacuation routes out of your office and where to shelter if leaving is unfeasible. If you need to vacate your office immediately, remind staff members to bring with them any medication they’re taking.

Maintain backup files in cloud storage — and in an offsite space that’s not in your immediate area. Having access to files in an auxiliary site will help your practice better serve clients who may be dealing with the same disaster your firm is.

Create a chain of command, and designate trusted staff members to contact family members, first responders, vendors and anyone else who needs to be notified. And we suggest going over the plan at least quarterly — or, in our case, before hurricane season starts.

Picking up the pieces

Dealing with the aftermath of a disaster is, in many ways, harder than living through it, but having an action plan can speed recovery and minimize the long-term effects on your staff and your practice.

Get in front of the eight ball here. Don’t make a disaster plan after the disaster.

Right now is the best time to make a strategic plan for how you will account for and get in touch with all employees in emergency situations. Decide who will contact outside vendors to apprise them of your situation. Plan now how you might get an alternate law office up and running, which may entail power supply, email and phone, mail deliveries and anything else you need to do to run your firm.

In The Essential Formbook: Comprehensive Management Tools for Lawyers, Vol. IV, Garry A. Munneke and Anthony E. Davis offered some other tips for picking up the pieces.

Although it might be unpleasant to think about, in the case of death or incapacitation of one of your firm’s lawyers, you need other lawyers to step in and shoulder more of the case load. Or, if that’s not possible, you’ll have to go outside and hire someone.

Post-traumatic stress counseling may be necessary. Recovering from a physical injury is pretty straightforward, but dealing with emotional or psychological injuries are something else entirely. Anxiety, nightmares, trouble concentrating, flashbacks — they’re all symptoms of PTSD. Helping your staff members recover isn’t just the ethical thing to do, it helps your firm, too, by getting valued members back to work as soon as they are able.

Be prepared to train new lawyers and staff members because turnover is almost guaranteed after a disaster hits. It’s human nature to avoid a place that you associate with injury or loss. If you have several positions to fill at the same time, contact employment services, the local university or headhunting firms to help you fill your positions.

Even after a disaster, you have a business to run. Being prepared before and after a disaster strikes means you’ll be back to doing your job as soon as possible.

Steve Riley

Certified Practice Advisor & Attorney

Steve Riley has coached attorneys for more than 20 years. His one-on-one coaching focuses on a limited number of top producing attorneys committed to taking their practices to new levels of excellence, profit, and personal success. He also presents at group coaching workshops around the country for individual law firms, state bar associations, and other legal organizations.

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