Being Paperless is an Advantage When Disaster Strikes

Disasters can occur on a community and a personal level. They can be big or they can be small. It is a stretch to call what happened to me a “disaster,” but it made me realize just how critical a paperless/digital/mobile practice is to surviving disasters, big and small.

A paperless practice, whether as part of a brick and mortar office or a true virtual practice, will allow you the flexibility to respond in the event disaster strikes.

My personal “disaster” came about early in the evening last New Years Eve. I slipped while rushing down the stairs to walk our dogs before getting ready to go out for  dinner with my family.  I didn’t actually fall, which is the weird part. Rather, I slipped and caught myself on the next step, landing on my heel with my knee bent. Apparently when you are a large guy (which I am) and you do that, bad things happen.  In my case I tore my quad tendon completely off knee cap. Clean. Off. To put it mildly: Ouch!

So … I spent New Years Even in an emergency room. Ten days later I was in surgery to repair the tear. For the next 8 weeks I was in a straight leg brace, unable to drive and with limited mobility. It gets worse. Just when I was coming out of the brace and working hard in physical therapy to regain lost function, the darn thing tore again. Yep. Clean. Off. I’m back to virtually square one. What was going to be a 4 or 5 month recovery suddenly turned in to 8 or 9. So for me, on a personal level, this was a minor disaster.

In the days before I took my practice paperless, this would have been a not-so-minor disaster for my practice. How the hell would I have gotten in to the office every day to work? I couldn’t drive–my injury was to my right knee so no way I could work the gas and brake with my leg in a straight brace. So my ability to access my files, to work on my cases, everything would have been in jeopardy.  I would have been forced into a near sabbatical.

But with my paperless practice, I can say my actual downtime was limited to a few days after each surgery. (Practicing law under the influence of post-surgery narcotics is certainly a bad idea.) Because I have a fully outfitted virtual office in my home, my commute consisted of the (slow) hobble down the stairs to my office. Because I use Ring Central’s VOIP phone system, I was able to practice without anyone even knowing that I had suffered an injury. My office simply scanned my mail in as it arrived and I accessed it as quickly as if I was the one opening the mail.

Of course, if I couldn’t get in to the office, I couldn’t get into court, a problem for a litigator.  But, without fail, opposing attorneys and judgess on my cases were understanding and accommodating. Some appearances had to be rescheduled. Others were conducted remotely by telephone, Skype or FaceTime conference. One trial had to be rescheduled due to my second surgery, but all things considered, I have been able to carry on my practice with little impact on my ability to service my clients and with little impact on my bottom line. My decision to go paperless and to establish a highly mobile practice, was the key to my practice surviving my personal “disaster.” But that fact got me thinking about how beneficial a paperless, digital, mobile practice would be in the event of a natural disaster.

Disasters are constantly in the news. Hurricane Katrina. Super Storm Sandy. Closer to home for me were the devastating tornados that struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. In all these situations, homes and businesses were destroyed, including law practices. I can only imagine the horror for an attorney who realized that all his work–his case files, vital evidence, critical documents–was washed or blown away. A lifetime of work could be eliminated in the course of a few minutes.

The backbone concept of a paperless practice is that all of this information is stored digitally and can be remotely accessed from any place with an internet connection. Sure, computers could be destroyed. But with your digital files safely backed up to a cloud service, such as Dropbox, you can access that information from any computer, any where.  You can even do it from a smartphone. If you don’t have internet or phone service immediately, the data will still be there when you do. And when you do, you can hit the ground running. As soon as you can purchase a couple of new laptops, you and your staff will be back in business. The same is true for a VOIP phone system as opposed to a traditional phone system.  Equipment destroyed in a fire or flood? A disaster yes, but with a VOIP system everything can be directed to your cell phone. Your practice will be up and running, probably before you are even ready for it. With a VOIP system a move into temporary offices can be accomplished by simply plugging your phone into your network.

I’ve outlined how to go paperless in the past and talked about some of the advantages. I’ve outlined my paperless workflow. But when my small disaster struck, I realized that probably the biggest advantage is one I had never really considered–peace of mind. It was only weeks later, after I had gotten used to the temporary changes in my life that my injury had forced on me that I realized that I had never had that moment of panic that certainly would have stricken if I’d had a traditional office and practice model: “What am I going to do?” Not once did I worry about that. I knew that I could continue to serve my clients. That peace of mind was priceless.


  1. Avatar Matt Haiduk says:

    It can cut either way, I think. I once worked out of an office that caught fire one Friday while I was at lunch. The fire did a number on all the electronics. Some of the papers were destroyed, the others had some level of soot on them.

    The next morning we were able to box up enough of the files/papers/calendars to get things running again quickly. The computers were trashed, though.

    • The loss of computer hardware should be irrelevant. My article assumes that you are using cloud backup for at least your critical client and practice files. I can’t emphasize enough how absolutely vital that is and I’ve written about it in past posts. I think a law firm that does not have a disaster proof off-site/cloud backup is opening itself up to liability if disaster does strike.

      The point is with a cloud based mobile paperless practice, you could have gone home after the fire, accessed your system from your home computer and been up and running in minutes. A trip to your local computer retailer and a few hours restoring from your backups and you’d be fully recovered.

      • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

        Yep. If I lose all my computers in a fire, I can be up and running and serving clients in the time it takes me to find another computer (and a suit, if I have court that day), with no downtime.

        The only things I would lose would be original copies of a few documents I might need to file with the court, which occupy a few manila folders in my file cabinet. But I’m pretty sure the court filing desk would be lenient with me, due to losing everything in a fire.

  2. Avatar John G says:

    Paperless just makes everything easier!

  3. Avatar Brandon Lauria says:

    I am interested in discussing the use of tablets/laptops in court as a substitute to a paper file. Any suggested apps? Best practices, etc?

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