10 Steps to planning for disaster

Guidance and Ethics 03/06/2022

disaster planning solicitors' firms

 

A disastrous or emergency event can happen to anyone at any time and can come unexpectedly. If it does, you and your firm may need to adapt quickly to the situation to ensure the survival of the firm. Solicitors have an ethical and moral obligation to implement reasonable measures to safeguard property and money they hold for clients or third parties, prepare for business interruption, and keep clients informed about how to contact them.

How your firm reacts and adapts to a disastrous or emergency event can mean the difference between resuming work with relative business continuity—or leaving your clients stranded or in the worst scenario, closing your firm. Being unprepared for emergencies can also leave your firm’s staff, clients, and data vulnerable and at risk.

Here are some steps to help a firm create a response plan:

  1. Carry out an inventory: You should always know exactly what your firm has on hand so that anyone following your plan knows what needs to be recovered or replaced. You should consider including the following in your inventory:
    • Software. Make a list of any software your firm uses. How many licenses do you have? Do you need to have passwords or other ways to access it?
    • Hardware: How many computers, servers, or other pieces of physical hardware does your firm have—and where are they located? 
    • Client files. Should a disaster occur, have a list of all client files in your firm’s possession so that they can be recovered. 
    • Note the locations of everything. For example, are files stored in the cloud, or a physical location? 
  2. Do a risk assessment: Include everything on your inventory carried out at Step 1. Identify the impact of each risk and ways to mitigate risks.
  3. Identify and group critical services, systems, and data: For example, if client data is located on a single server, or has no back up, this could be considered critical. Whereas items which can be easily replaced or are backed up in multiple places could be considered low risk.
  4. Identify supporting tools: Do you backup your data? How often? Where is it located (is the backup site located in the same region as the primary site)? Assess your current situation, and make note of any gaps that could be an issue. Consider using automation technology to remove or reduce human error to help protect your firm in case of disaster. Consider outsourcing any critical functions (like data-hosting backups) to mitigate risk in case of a physical disaster such as a fire?
  5. Assign responsible individuals: Tell someone what plans and procedures you have in place in the event of a disastrous or emergency event. Should an emergency occur, people should know in advance what their responsibilities are. Identify members of your response team and assign roles and responsibilities. Ensure each person is aware of their specific responsibilities. For example, who would be responsible for client communication? Identify any service providers to be contacted. Is there a member of the firm who knows or has access to the plan? Have Executor/Alternative/Substitutes been notified? Are they aware of the plan? What if they cannot assist.
  6. Determine how to handle sensitive information: Consider documenting a plan for handling essential records (like employment records, financials, and client files) in terms of confidentiality, security, and integrity following a disaster.
  7. Communication Plan: Consider having a written plan to document the communication in case of disaster or emergency, including: Detail the specific means of communication your team members will use. How and when will your firm communicate with essential personnel, service providers, and clients? Who will be responsible for each type of communication?
  8. Test and Review the Plan: Testing the plan helps ensure that everyone at your firm knows what to do, and also helps account for normal business factors like staff turnover or moving offices. Consider doing a walkthrough or simulation testing of the plan. See what works and what doesn’t work so you can adjust the plan and train staff accordingly.
  9. Finance: Try and maintain a buffer to cover unexpected expenses that may occur. This might not always be possible and will vary from firm to firm.
  10. Do Not Panic & Ask for Help: Emergency situations can be very stressful. An already stressful situation can be made much worse when you don't keep your cool. Colleagues are usually happy to step into assist in times of an emergency. They may have experience in dealing with this matter and may provide a valuable insight as to how to minimise disruption. 

Further information on Emergency Succession planning is available in the Law Society Practice Note Emergency Succession Planning in a Sole Practitioner’s or Principal’s firm, second edition.