How Law Firms Can Prepare for Disasters with a Business Continuity Plan

Life ring floating in the vast expanse of sea

It doesn’t take much to imagine the many disasters that, in an instant, could derail a law firm’s operations. Unexpected events that affect your health — pandemic, perhaps? — or others that affect your working space — think floods or fires — or cyberattacks can severely hamper your ability to provide legal services. Without a strategy to mitigate the effects of sudden calamity, you can lose time, money, and resources trying to recover. You could even end up the subject of discipline or malpractice claims if failure to prepare harms a client.

Develop a Business Continuity Plan

According to FEMA, more than 40 percent of businesses never reopen after a disaster. But having a plan, specifically a business continuity plan, can mean the difference between your firm surviving or collapsing in a disaster.

A business continuity plan is a written document that lays out protocols for your firm to follow so that it can function and accomplish critical business needs in the event of an unexpected disaster. Your business continuity plan for unexpected events should specify a process like this:

  • First 12 hours: Your plan should include a written process and approach for notifying clients and opposing counsel that you are experiencing an emergency; e.g., set an automatic email reply, change your voicemail greeting, and provide contact information for urgent matters. If you have staff, you should have an established process for communicating with each other.
  • First 24 hours: You need to identify all existing deadlines and determine which deadlines are occurring within four weeks; which of those deadlines require an extension; and the process for obtaining those extensions (for example, can you informally request an extension by email? Do you need to make a motion to the court?). If the incident implicates an insurance claim, begin the claims process and be sure to document any relevant damage.
  • First 48 hours: If the hardware you primarily use to work—e.g., computer, laptop, or tablet—is destroyed, you need to determine your options for replacing that hardware or utilizing other options, mindful of confidentiality concerns and cybersecurity protection. Also, determine what steps need to be taken to ensure payroll is processed on time, as well as any unpaid bills or invoices.
  • First 72 hours: Unless your initial analysis indicated that you need to do this sooner, start your process for obtaining any extensions you need. In addition to deadlines, you need to identify and address any document loss you suffered, including business records, trust accounting records, and any client files.
  • First week: By the end of the first week, you should be as close to fully operable as possible. You should be able to timely complete work and respond to inquiries, your bookkeeping should be up to date, and you should have a process in place to address any long-term needs such as permanent office space.

Your business continuity plan should also keep an up-to-date summary of:

  • Banking information
  • Contact information and emergency contacts for yourself and all staff members
  • Contact information for vendors
  • Location of where to obtain contact information for all clients on current matters
  • Insurance information

Practice Guides and Personalized Advice

This article provides the barebones for a business continuity plan. For more detailed information, check out WSBA’s Law Firm Guide on Disaster Planning. Included in the guide is a template to help you get started on creating your own business continuity plan. The guide also dives into your professional responsibilities to disaster plan, general best practices for risk mitigation, and designating a custodian if you are unable to practice.

You can also download and explore other practice guides and accompanying forms on cybersecurity, hanging your own shingle, and document retention. For personalized advice, WSBA members can schedule a free confidential consultation with a practice management advisor here.