While Jared Correia was a practice management advisor (PMA) in Massachusetts, he helped lawyers deal with many law practice … issues. In his column, “Law Practice Confidential,” he will be answering real questions from real lawyers. To send Jared an anonymous question, use the form at the bottom of this post.
When I arrived at my office Monday morning, I noticed that my window was broken. Someone had taken an ax to it in a very professional way. It was Monday morning, so I was on a beeline to my desk. I’m a new associate, so I wanted to show everybody I was in early, killin’ it. When I walked back out of my office, I noticed that the floor was soaked, and that the file drawers were disheveled. (Yes, we have paper files. Apparently, it’s 1922.) This was the perfect opportunity to get another coffee. When I came back in, concerned employees were gathered in the conference room. That’s when I got the full story.
One of our attorneys (let’s call him Nacho Libre, to protect our own innocence) comes into the office on the weekends, because if he stays home, his wife will make him do yardwork. (Not that he does any work here, either.) So, every weekend morning, Nacho rolls out of the house, grabs a breakfast burrito and chills in his office. Over the weekend, at some point, Nacho uses the shared bathroom, flushes, and never looks back.
The toilet gets backed up, and overflows. The flooding hits a circuit-breaker, which probably explodes, and ignites a fire in our office. The reams of paper we maintain are now ablaze. Some passer-by calls the fire department. Firefighters can’t get in the locked door, and no one is answering the bell, so they decide the best mode of ingress is my office window. They put out the fire, though many of our furnishings, files, and computer hardware have already been damaged. Then, they find Attorney Libre. He is lying under his desk, unresponsive. One of the firefighters starts to perform CPR, which wakes him up right quick.
He wasn’t dead. He was just taking a nap.
But, maybe we’re dead.
How can the firm recover from this?
I hate to say it, but you are probably out of luck.
Let’s start with your files. If the paper is burnt to a crisp (or, alternatively, soaked to the skin), it’s probably a dead letter. You’re not getting it back—unless you can find yourself a time-traveling Delorean, to travel back to the year 1922.
However, in 2016, even the most aggressively traditional law firms cannot entirely avoid technology. Nobody types or handwrites everything any longer, so you might find saved copies of all documents drafted by the firm’s attorneys, though those documents may be hard to find if your firm does not impose a file structure of some kind or if attorneys use multiple devices to save documents. If your firm takes on litigation work or administrative hearings, you should be able to acquire copies of all documents from the courts and agencies before which you appear.
It’s going to be like a 1970s episode of Scooby Doo getting all of that stuff back but you can make it happen. I would recommend, however, not returning to paper. The whole burrito incident is probably a sign that it’s time to move on to a paperless office environment. Lease one big scanner, or buy individual scanners, and make everybody scan everything.
Get your office networked, or use a cloud document repository, so everyone is archiving to and accessing documents from the same place. You’ll begin to appreciate the flexibility and cost savings. If you want to maintain certain paper copies going forward, or paper-based archives, use fireproof, waterproof, lockable file cabinets, and make sure that attorneys in the firm do not leave files out on their desks or overnight. Had all your files been placed in file cabinets that could have withstood a fire and flood, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Regarding potential monetary recovery, your firm’s attorneys will want to check their insurance policies and cross as many fingers as possible. If you have a business interruption policy, you may be able to access some funds to cover for the downtime you’ve suffered. Property insurance may cover for damage to physical property, like desks and computers.
While now may seem like a strange time to do so, it makes sense to draft and follow a disaster recovery plan. Going through the process will force you to take a hard look at your vulnerabilities, solve for what you can, and protect against what you can’t. Not for nothing, but you just got an eyeful of some of your major vulnerabilities. You probably would not have been able to guess the particular origin of this disaster, but its effects are common bits of fallout that law firms should be prepared for. Fix those, and prepare for other potentialities while you are at it.