Whether it is hurricanes in the Gulf and along the Atlantic Coast, earthquakes in California, wildfires in the southwest, blizzards in the north, or tornadoes, a natural disaster can disrupt your firm, destroy your files and office equipment, and close your practice — in the worst case scenario — for months.
Preparing for a natural disaster should be part of any solo or small firm’s overall business plan. While natural disasters are unavoidable, losing your business should not be. In order to make sure your practice bounce back from a closure due to a natural disaster, you need to plan accordingly.
Make a Plan
Any good plan should cover both the broad questions as well as small details. Consider having two types of disaster plans:
- A plan for disasters you have one day or more to anticipate, such as a hurricane.
- A “get out dodge” plan for sudden events such as tornadoes or earthquakes.
A written plan provides both you and your staff with peace of mind. Written plans also prevent critical details from falling through the cracks when disaster hits.
This should go without saying, but staff and personal safety should be your first priority in any plan. If your office suddenly comes under a tornado warning, do not send the staff home and lock the doors. The last situation you want is your staff out on the roads during a tornado. Have a plan in place for any potential disasters your location is prone to. Each staff member should be aware of the plan and prepared to follow it through; your plans should always have staff safety as first priority.
Keeping staff safe at the office is important, but it is also critical to keep them safe on their way to the office. During a natural disaster, you do not want to be fielding worried calls or emails from your staff asking whether or not they are expected to show up to the office. Consider adopting the county’s school closures as your office closures. This information is easy to find out via local news, but keep in mind that in some cases your staff may live in a different county than your office. Specify staff should use their county of residence to determine whether it is safe to travel to the office. Clarify whether or not staff are expected to answer emails or phone calls from you during an office closure.
Now that your plan to keep staff safe is in order, you need to minimize damage and secure sensitive information. In your plan, consider including checklists for tasks such as securing your office. Depending on the disaster, you may need to move computers and files to high shelves in closets or consider taking sensitive equipment home with you. Consult with your landlord if you rent office space to determine whether you or your landlord is responsible for securing your windows, doors, and outside fixtures. A list of responsibilities for attorneys and staff before leaving the office in an emergency protects your office equipment and computers from damage.
Going paperless (or mostly paperless) can help tremendously by eliminating the need to secure file cabinets and paper files. If you still have paper files, have a pre-existing plan that says how they will be secured. If your firm regularly keeps original documents such as wills, get a fire-and-water-proof safe that can hold these documents.
Find the Right Insurance Plan
In addition to malpractice insurance, property, or renter’s insurance, get business interruption insurance, which can cover potential losses from a natural disaster. Here are some matters to consider when selecting insurance for your practice.
Property or renter’s insurance is designed to cover losses to your office, office equipment, and computers. Just like with your homeowner’s insurance, it is a good idea to take photos of your fully furnished office, or even a walk-through video, before a natural disaster is bearing down on you. Make sure to include computer setups and furniture to show the insurance company the “pre-loss condition.” Also, consider keeping a scanned-in or electronic copy of your insurance policy in cloud storage.
Business interruption insurance is designed to cover revenues or profits lost due to shuttering your firm in a natural disaster. When determining what amount of coverage you will need, consider the expenses your firm would continue to incur even if shuttered due to a natural disaster, such as business loan repayments, rent or mortgage payments, or staff salaries. This type of insurance is typically sold as an addition to your business property insurance, which can mean that it will not cover lost profits due to a loss excluded in your business policy. For example, if your business property or renter’s policy excludes any losses caused by flood, your business interruption will likewise exclude lost revenue caused by the same flood. As with buying any insurance, make sure you fully understand what coverages and exclusions apply before you buy.
Notify Your Clients
After any natural disaster or emergency, it is critical to keep your existing clients notified about office closures and who will be handling their cases in the meantime. Clients are the reason your office stays in business, so it is imperative to reassure them their cases are in safe hands even during a natural disaster. Consider having a pre-written email saved that can be updated and go out to clients once you know your office will be down for any period of time. Include things like interim contact details and what your “office hours” will be while the office is closed down.
You do not need to be a “prepper” or store a Bowie knife in your desk, but it is always a good idea to keep emergency supplies in an easily-accessible location in your office. A good first-aid kit, flashlights, an emergency radio, batteries, bottled water, and rolls of duct tape can be easily stored and may be useful in disasters. Consider your office location when getting emergency supplies. An office in Miami would have no need for a snow shovel while an office in Buffalo may use one twice a year.
Always Be Prepared
Hopefully your office never gets hit by a natural disaster. If it does, you want to be well-prepared. Having a well-defined plan, going paperless, having the right insurance, notifying your clients, and having the right supplies can make the difference between reopening as soon as possible and closing your practice for good.
- The American Bar Association has a guide to disaster planning (pdf), although it is written more for larger law firms.
- The U.S. Small Business Association has a handy emergency preparedness resource.
Featured image: “Last Days” from Shutterstock.