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Home / Letters To The Editor / Shielding your practice from disaster: Ethical and professional considerations

Shielding your practice from disaster: Ethical and professional considerations

As those who have been affected by the most recent string of storms in Missouri can attest, tornado season is upon us. Most are aware of the devastating societal and economic impact these natural disasters can have on communities, but young attorneys may not be aware of the potential malpractice and ethical risks that can arise in the wake of such storms.

In order to analyze how prepared your office is to weather a natural disaster, ask yourself what you would do if your entire physical office, as it currently exists, was destroyed tomorrow. Would you be prepared to pick up the pieces and continue to zealously represent your clients without anything slipping through the cracks? If the answer to that question is no, it is time to put together a plan for what you will do if disaster strikes.

The primary goal of a disaster preparedness strategy is to ensure that you are able to continue providing your clients quality legal services without interruption. While only you can properly analyze the risks faced by your practice and the best ways to protect your clients if the worst were to occur, these tips should help set you down the right path.

1) Communication: Consider how your firm will communicate with the courts, other lawyers, staff, clients, and vendors if your physical space is destroyed. You may want to consider establishing a protocol to set up an emergency hotline, arrange for a forwarding number, or designate a contact outside of the area impacted by the disaster to assist you with this essential communication. You should also plan for where mail should be rerouted and who will be responsible for communicating with the courts regarding your situation.

2) Firm and Client Data: In order to ensure that representation of your current active clients can continue without harm to the clients’ interests, it is essential that you have a back-up plan for your active client list, your calendar, and your active client files. Ensure you have an off-site copy of your active client list. If you store your data electronically, have a plan in place for where that information will be backed up or how it will be recovered. If you keep paper files, you should make a plan to begin gathering and protecting the documents as quickly as possible. Water damage can begin to deteriorate paper records within hours; therefore, having a plan in place to dry or freeze documents as quickly as possible is crucial.

3) Workspace: Where will your work be conducted if your offices are no longer accessible? It could be beneficial to develop a plan to get a temporary office up and running as quickly as possible. Your plan should address not only the physical space where your temporary office will be set up but also what office supplies, equipment, and utilities are necessary.

4) Succession Planning: Though many might not want to consider the possibility, you should also think about what would happen if not only your office were affected by the disaster, but if you were incapacitated as well. Preparing an adequate succession plan is part of your duty to competently represent your clients. If you practice in a firm with other attorneys, work this out amongst you now. If you are a solo practitioner, you should find another attorney who is willing and able to wind down or take over your business. More information regarding succession planning can be found in “Planning Ahead: A Guide to Protect Your Client’s and Your Survivor’s Interests In the Event of Your Disability or Death,” available at mobar.org/lpmonline/disaster/.

5) Insurance Coverage: An adequate emergency plan will likely also include adequate insurance coverage to protect your firm from the financial and professional risks associated with a natural disaster.

As you are developing your office’s personalized disaster strategy, it is important to keep in mind that your needs may go beyond the tips contained here. The purpose of this plan is to identify your law firm’s essential processes and their impact on your business and your clients, and then establish procedures and assign responsible parties to execute those procedures.

 

dunn-whitneyThis article was first published by The Missouri Bar’s Young Lawyers Section at mobar.org/mediacenter/. Whittney Dunn is a risk manager for The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company. She can be reached at wadunn@thebarplan.com or 314-965-3333, Ext. 171. For more information or assistance with developing your plan, visit mobar.org/lpmonline/disaster/ or contact The Bar Plan Ethics Hotline at 800-843-2277 (Ext. 103).

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