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March 2002
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Small & Home Office

Dealing With Disaster

By Diane M. Ellis

Dealing With Disaster DISASTER appears in many guises, with effects ranging from temporary inconvenience to unthinkable devastation.

The key to saving your practice in the precious few minutes available after disaster strikes ­ whether it's earthquake, tornado, fire, flood, or server failure -- is to devote time now to prevention and maintenance. If you do encounter a disruption, use the experience as an opportunity to revise your plan with your newly-gained knowledge of what worked and didn't.

The following 11 tips are based on the collective wisdom of my colleagues operating practice management advisory programs for bar associations and law societies throughout the United States and Canada.

1. Solo Practitioners

* Locate and keep in touch with a reciprocal "emergency buddy" who can help with client notification and case handling.

Regularly provide your buddy with updated information about your clients and cases.

* Be aware of and follow applicable ethical rules concerning client consent/ confidentiality/conflicts.

* If you practice from a home office, plan evacuation for family, guests, and pets as well as business preservation.

* If you practice in a firm, establish a "Critical Incident Response Team."

* Establish decision-making authority.

2. Establish a Damage Assessment / Reporting Team

* Evaluate damage.

* Report to authorities, notify insurance carriers, landlords, etc.

* Establish critical incident response procedures and reporting methods.

Locate and keep in touch with a reciprocal "emergency buddy" who can help with client notification and case handling.

-M. Diane Ellis

* Regularly distribute (and keep updated) lists of home and mobile phone numbers to team members.

Include emergency contact and medical information for all employees.

* Set up "telephone tree" calling procedure for notification of after-hours emergencies, and follow-up information for business-hours emergencies.

* Keep track of location of employees who need help evacuating.

* Identify follow-up resources, such as crisis counselors and hotlines.

* Create a plan to communicate with clients about emergency and interim plans. Provide a client liaison.

* Plan for continuances and back-up assistance.

3. Develop emergency evacuation and re-assembly procedures

* Assign helpers for visitors and employees requiring assistance.

* Practice, with announced and unannounced drills.

* Meet at designated spot and account for everyone.

4. Identify items to be evacuated if time permits without endangering people

* Assign responsibility for rescue. Emphasize human safety over objects.

5. Train and identify first aid providers

* Circulate updated list of trained providers. Plan for a triage/treatment area. Keep stocked first aid kits available.

6. Create contingency plans to operate your business in another location

* Among issues: Space, equipment, computers, telecommuting alternatives, financial aspects.

7. Establish a safety monitoring team. Regularly look for hazards

* Train employees to recognize and respond to emergencies. Determine and address employees' safety concerns, reasonable and unreasonable.

* Monitor for potential workplace violence triggers.

8. Identify, Protect and Insure.

* Inventory office contents. Appraise. Photograph. Protect. Purchase insurance. Re-evaluate regularly.

9. During an Emergency

* Human life and safety first. Evacuate and account for people.

* Mobilize your "Critical Incident Response Team."

* Attend to urgent physical and emotional needs.

10. Recovery

* Human needs first.

* Attend to less urgent physical and emotional needs.

* Communicate ­ early and often.

* Mobilize your "Damage Assessment/Reporting Team."

*Eliminate or isolate ongoing hazards.

* Preserve and protect property.

* Begin salvage and recovery.

* Debrief.

* Thank everyone for cooperation.

* Discuss future plans.

* Identify additional resources needed.

11. When things return to normal.

* Thank everyone again. Re-evaluate and revise disaster prevention and response plans.

Your thoroughness in preventing, planning for and recovering from disaster can not only assure that your business survives but can provide your clients and employees with an opportunity to recognize your firm's creativity and caring under challenging circumstances.

This translates to confidence.

Diane M. Ellis is director of lawyer assistance programs, State Bar of Arizona. She wishes to acknowledge the contributions of the members of the American Bar Association Law Practice Management section's Practice Management Advisors Committee.

Editor's Note
Publisher's Report
San Antonio

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