Storm Warning: Disaster-Proof Your Practice for Hurricane and Winter Season, Part I

hurricaneThere are still over two months to go in hurricane season, which ends on November 30th. Winter will arrive three weeks later, bringing freezing weather, snow and ice storms, and high winds to much of the US.

What if damage from a hurricane, winter storm, or other peril, such as a fire, shuts your office for days or even weeks? If you don’t plan ahead, the consequences are clear: reduced current income as you generate fewer billable hours and some current clients replace you; reduced future income as some regular clients take their business elsewhere, referrals from peers stop as word spreads about your predicament, and your marketing efforts cease; cash flow problems as your billing and collection activity is reduced, you continue to incur most of your overhead costs, and you incur extra expenses to reopen your practice; increased risk of malpractice claims as you lose track of statutory deadlines, postpone settlement conferences, etc.

You can avoid these consequences, and even a single day of downtime, by implementing a sound disaster recovery plan.

At the end of this article are links to comprehensive guides that cover all aspects of disaster recovery planning. This article focuses on the three aspects of it that will enable you to avoid downtime: protecting your data, protecting your important papers, and choosing an alternate location to practice in if your office is inaccessible. 

I. Protect your electronic data: case files, contact lists, forms, billing records, etc. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, 93% of companies that lost their data for 10 days or more due to a disaster, filed for bankruptcy within one year of the disaster. So backup your data regularly, using at least one local backup and one off-site backup.

Local backup entails backing up your data to either a disc (CD or DVD) or external hard drive that you install on your computer. An external hard drive is preferable to a disc, because it has much greater capacity. You can buy a good one for under $100; install it in your computer and store data on it by using your computer’s backup software (Windows backupMac backup). Back up your laptop or desktop at least once a day, i.e., before you go home; then remove the disc or external hard drive and either store it overnight in a fire/flood-resistant safe or take it home with you.

Off-site backup is the best protection from fire, hurricane, etc., because even the best safe can be lost or destroyed, taking your local backup with it (however, data can be restored much faster from a local backup than from an offsite back-up.) The most efficient offsite backup is via the Internet, i.e., a cloud storage provider: sign up with a vendor, install its application on your computer, and then upload your files. Note: choose a vendor that encrypts your data before storing it, which will protect you from a data breach, etc.  

By using alternate back-up methods, you can avoid downtime even if your computers are destroyed in a fire, storm, etc.: just buy new ones and load your back-up files onto them.

II A. Protect your paper files: scan them into your computer; you can then access them at any time, and they’ll backed-up with the rest of your electronic data. Better yet, go paperless after you scan them by storing your paper files offsite; choose a secure facility that has good fire protection (a fire alarm and sprinkler). If you’re not ready to go fully paperless, take a baby step by scanning your closed files; it will be much cheaper than storing them offsite (don’t throw out your paper files without first ensuring that you’re in compliance with local rules pertaining to file retention). As a worst-case-scenario measure, contract with a damaged document recovery company.

II B. Protect paper documents that you need to operate your business, and your business and trust account checkbooks. Store vital documents in metal files cabinets that are at least several feet high to minimize the risk of flood damage; store checkbooks in a fire/flood-resistant safe (this will also protect them from theft), along with any blank check paper, client settle­ment checks that you haven’t yet distributed, and stocks, bonds, etc., that you keep on hand.

III. Choose an alternate place to practice and meet clients while your office is being repaired. A solo practitioner can work at home and rent a hotel conference room to meet clients; a small firm can rent a temporary office; a larger firm may have to combine work-from-home and temporary office rentals. You don’t need to have a formal arrangement in place ahead of time, but you should know what you are options are so you can act quickly, if necessary.

 Finally, having good relationships with your fellow attorneys, i.e., members of the Sole and Small Firm Practi­tioners Section of your bar association, will help you greatly if disaster strikes.

Next time: choosing the right disaster insurance.

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About Curtis Cooper

Curtis Cooper is principal of Lawyers Insurance Group – Broker For Great Law Firms, which helps attorneys optimize their malpractice coverage. Contact him by phone: (202) 802-6415, or email: ccooper “at” lawyersinsurer.com.

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