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December 19, 2012

Emergency Preparedness Tips for Law Firms

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, law firms and other legal businesses should consider their disaster plans for the coming year and beyond.

Emergency preparedness is so crucial to law firms, whether it is a first-time plan or a business continuity update, that the _’s Law Practice Management Section issued a special edition last spring of Law Practice Today on the topic. Guy Sapirstein, a partner with the consulting firm GRCS, who specializes in organizational crisis response, shared in the special edition his advice on aftermath planning.

He says three general principles have been successfully used to guide and develop plans: safety, predictability and control.

Safety: Re-establishing a sense of safety is the first and most important guiding principle. It is both an objective and subjective experience. Objectively, people need to be out of harm’s way, adequately fed and sheltered and their safety needs continually monitored. Subjectively, people need to perceive or believe they are safe. This means removing reminders of the event as quickly as possible (or blocking the view if necessary), maintaining a visible presence of security personnel for protection, and ensuring access and visibility of health services and basic supplies.

Predictability: People are used to having order in their lives. The disruption common to all crises challenges this order. Helping people re-engage in predictable patterns can reduce adverse long-term effects of the event. Instilling a general sense of predictability is done by creating structure in people’s lives. Return to routine workday hours and other timetables as soon as possible, with only a moderate amount of flexibility. Avoid surprises and sudden changes.

Control: The defining characteristic of a crisis situation is the perceived and/or actual lack of control over the situation. Keeping that in the forefront of planning can help restore a sense of efficacy and mobilize healthy initiative. People feel in control when they perceive they can influence the outcome of a situation. Finding ways to encourage a sense of ownership and competence by assigning responsibilities helps move people from a passive position (helpless in the face of a crisis) to an active one (coping with the situation).

Assigning responsibilities, in fact, is the first task planners face in aftermath planning and plan execution, Sapirstein says. It is important to verify that whoever is tasked with planning and execution is both experienced in contingency planning and capable of delivering the services as planned. The default choice is your organization may be the human resources department.

Sapirstein offers these additional pointers on aftermath planning and execution:

  • Firms should determine who is responsible for coordination and communication with the various agencies of local and federal government. Communicating that information through the organization reduces confusion and stress levels.
  • Certain situations call for mental health interventions. Choosing the right provider for these services is critical. In choosing a vendor, consider the vendor’s vulnerability (if they are in a similar geographic area to a weather-related or natural disaster), capacity and experience.
  • Designate a “volunteer manager” to screen volunteers from the community (health, mental health, electricians, plumbers, etc.) based on credentials, experience and organizational need.
  • Because people consider their family’s needs before their organization’s needs in a disaster, it is in the best interest of the organization to provide assistance and coordination for families of employees. Designating a family coordinator can simplify the process of obtaining support and services for families as well as minimizing the disruption of work for employees.
  • Host “town hall” meetings. These are useful tools for helping people regain a sense of control through offering feedback as well as receiving information. Useful tips for these meetings include: be prepared; give facts; be honest; be and stay on time; encourage participation; listen first and offer solutions second; encourage participants to suggest solutions; don’t be defensive or angry; remember that people are usually angry and/or scared.
  • Low morale is common in the aftermath of major disasters, especially if relocation is necessary. Establish a “morale team” to plan and execute social activities and focus specifically on morale to help alleviate the low mood.
  • Transportation is a commonly overlooked issue that is especially relevant during temporary relocation or widespread infrastructure damage. In relocation to alternate work sites, organizations should pay close attention to the makeup of their workforce: Moving from an urban environment to a suburban or rural setting can create logistical problems for employees. Because people who live in an urban setting are less likely to have cars, they may be faced with an access problem. Solving this problem can be accomplished through creating and coordinating carpools and central information databases with relevant information included (location, available means of transportation, special needs).

In addition, the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness provides resources for lawyers and the public, both before and after disaster strikes. The site, at www.americanbar.org/disaster, offers sample disaster plans, suggestions for safeguarding legal records, tips for maintaining services and other resources.