Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Brandy Mai back to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
We are parents, caregivers, and legal professionals. By definition, we spend our personal and professional lives putting out proverbial fires. But are you prepared for a real fire or any other natural or man-made disaster that could interrupt your life, business, or finances?
While many of us have survived natural disasters, COVID-caused shutdowns on a global scale and the requirement to rapidly shift to remote work/learning showed many people just how underprepared they were for such a transition.
Continuity and succession planning is something that we’re often good at for our clients, but we aren’t so good at creating those plans for ourselves. As an emergency manager and almost-lawyer (sitting for the February bar exam), I’m here to ensure that you’ll be ready for the next disaster.
Before I begin, I’d like to say that I’m not here to replace any guidance that you may have been given by insurance companies, state bars, or local/state emergency management agencies. All of those entities likely have disaster plans or trainings that you can personalize for yourself or your business. However, that can often feel like a cumbersome task or something that you’ll get to “another day” because you just don’t have time.
I always recommend that a person or business should go through the steps to create a comprehensive disaster plan, conduct exercises to train on the plan, and create recurring events on your calendar to update the plan. That being said, in the absence of doing that (or hiring someone to do it), here are some practical pointers on how to start your own continuity plan that can be quickly accessed when needed, and help you prepare you for when you’re ready to do a more comprehensive plan.
- Create a folder in your online drive system (Google Drive, OneDrive, DropBox). The key here is for you and your staff to be able to access it and add things from computers, phones, or tablets. Name it Disaster Plan, Continuity Plan, or whatever else you will remember.
- While you’re in that cloud drive, go ahead and copy or scan any important documents into it, like leases, insurance documents, building fire exit plans, local evacuation documents, staff lists, equipment lists, passwords, etc. If you had to leave your office or home in five minutes or less, what information would you need.
- If you don’t want your staff to have access to certain items, create a locked subfolder for those items.
- Create an Excel workbook in that folder that everyone can access. It should have tabs for all your contacts — staff, clients, courthouses, opposing counsels, vendors, etc. — anybody that you would need to quickly contact if business operations were interrupted.
- If you use a case management system, you can export this information and place it in that folder. It is recommended that you export as csv for easy copy/pasting of this information should you need to do a mass email. Export this information at least one or two times per year.
- Create tabs for equipment/devices, passwords.
- Have your staff go into this workbook and enter their contact information, as well as their emergency contacts and anybody they work with who would need to be contacted in the event of a disaster.
- Give them a deadline to complete this.
Now that you’ve completed the first section, you have almost everything you’d really need in order to pivot quickly in the event of a disaster. This next part is for when you have time to think through some items or have a staff luncheon or schedule time to consider things more deeply. These next few exercises will be the start of your threat index.
- Create a shared document in this shared cloud drive where you can brain dump. You can even create a document for each person or staff member. The important thing is to have a place to write or type the next steps, kind of like a scratch pad.
- On this document (whether shared or on separate documents), make a list for each of the following (this doesn’t have to be perfect):
- What are the weather disasters that impact your area most often (thunderstorms, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.)?
- What are the greatest threats in your area for man-made disasters (local nuclear power plant, large arena next door that could be a target for terrorism, etc.)?
- If businesses, schools, or companies lost all their data, information, or power, which ones would have the greatest impact on your ability to earn money (banks, your kids’ schools, your password manager, whatever it is that you rely on the most)?
- Which devices are most important to you and which ones contain all your important info like passwords, documents, etc.?
- Who are the people in your office with the most responsibility? Who is capable of performing each of those jobs? If there is nobody who can perform a vital job duty, note it as “high cost” in the next session.
- Combine the answers to each section and prioritize them according to “most likely to happen” and “highest cost/loss.” It’s important that you have some items from each category on your final list so that you are most prepared.
- Take the top five to 10 items and put each of them as headers on one document or create separate documents for each of them. This is where you and your staff should write down your plans and ideas for what you would do (or how you would handle) if those things happen.
Now, you have a list of all the people you will need to contact in the event of a disaster, all of your important documents in one place, a list of all your equipment and devices, and know which incidents you should plan for (those that cause the biggest threat to your life or livelihood).
Another good idea is to keep a running list of resources or references in that folder. It could even be another tab on the Excel workbook. Ideally these would be resources that you know could be helpful to you, your family, and colleagues. I’ve placed some lawyer-specific resources at the bottom of this article to help get you started.
The takeaways from this article are simple:
- We’re great at helping our clients with their crises but horrible at planning for when it happens to us.
- Even though you’re in a risk-averse profession, you need to have a plan that can be executed rapidly.
- Start placing documents, ideas, and contact information into a designated cloud drive.
- Schedule time to do a deep dive with your team once you have completed all the numbered steps above.
- Hire a disaster consultant to create plans for you or to review the plans you create. It’s important to not try to be the expert on everything — and often if you’re too close to the plan, you can’t see any gaps.
Let past-tense you look out for future-tense you. Have all your documents in one place, know how to contact people, and know the biggest threats to your business. Once you have those things complete and safely in a cloud drive that can be accessed from anywhere, you will have the foundation to dive into larger, more comprehensive continuity planning. Until then, though, having these items in one place and knowing that it’s a team effort will provide you with more peace of mind — and we can all use some of that these days.
Appendix A: Resources And References
Mental Health Resources for Law Practice Management and Leadership:
Brandy Mai is a graduate of Mitchell Hamline School of Law. The legal profession will be Brandy’s second career, as she’s spent two decades working extensively in public information, crisis communications, and emergency management. Her experience includes work in military/veteran/government, corporate, nonprofit, emergency management, homeland security, and public safety sectors, including a position as lead public information officer for a state emergency management agency. Brandy’s certifications as an emergency manager and POST Instructor allow her to manage crisis and teach public safety professionals how to coordinate information effectively and accessibly during preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts. Brandy’s education includes military public affairs training at the Defense Information School, bachelors of journalism from Northwestern State University, graduate coursework in strategic communications from Purdue University. Her J.D. will supplement her work in crisis, disasters, and communications. Brandy’s professional successes include a statewide Top 40 Under 40 award in Georgia for her public relations work with veteran nonprofits, contributions on an Emmy Award-winning project, and placement of a previous employer on the Inc. 5000 “fastest growing company” list. Brandy is a mother of four and advocate for mental health, disabilities, veterans, and children.
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