Michael Ford
Legal Suppliers

Business continuity plans a must for law firms

A business contingency plan is critical for every law firm in case something should happen that disrupts the office in some way, says Toronto legal management consultant Mark Dormer.

“It could be a theft or a lengthy power outage that causes a problem so firms should have systems set up to make sure they are covered,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com

Without them, Dormer, owner and president of Cosgrove Associates Inc., says law firms are putting themselves at risk.

“You have to look at all of the various scenarios that you could come across and the worst one is that your business is completely inaccessible,” Dormer says. “You have to think about the possibility of not meeting filing deadlines and closing transactions, such as real estate. It’s a multi-discipline system you need in place to ensure a seamless transition for the continued operation of the firm.”

He points to a Stoney Creek law office that was destroyed by a devastating fire in January; 12 hours after the blaze, the Centennial Law Group quickly set up in a temporary location in Hamilton to ensure it was business as usual for its clients, reports HamiltonNews.com.

Dormer says it’s an example of how a plan is supposed to work. 

He says it’s good practice for law firms to begin with their telecommunications system to ensure there is a backup in case there is a problem. 

“Email, faxes, access to client files and a telephone system where members of the firm can retrieve messages and communicate with clients are vital,” he says. “Law firms need to be able to contact their staff and clients to advise them of what’s going on.

"It’s also important for firms to be able to continue doing their banking — do they have cheques stored in a secure, offsite location?”

Cosgrove Associates, which helps law firms become more efficient, is often hired to help lawyers develop business continuity plans.

It’s also critical that firms begin the process of scanning their paper files to ensure there is a digital copy, Dormer says. Without a digital file, a fire, theft, flood or other event may result in the permanent loss of those documents, he adds.

“We come across many firms that still rely heavily on paper files because they haven’t yet scanned every item into the computer system,” he says. “As technology becomes more accessible and affordable, more firms are moving in this direction. We are encouraging lawyers to keep electronic copies of pretty much everything — that is critical.” 

Dormer says it isn’t surprising that many firms still use mostly hard copy documents.

“Law firms are generally very traditional in the way they operate and sometimes it takes awhile for them to adapt to technology and new ways of doing things,” he says. 

There are also virtual computer servers to consider: if the office server goes down, the virtual one located in the Cloud can enable lawyers to access all of the documents, Dormer says. “Cloud email and Cloud-hosted telephone systems exist to allow for a seamless transition if you are unable to use your office.”

In addition, lawyers have to think about their health and whether they have sufficient systems in place so that if they become ill, somebody can step in and the practice can continue.

“They have to ask themselves whether things are documented in such a way that someone could, as efficiently as possible, take their place for awhile,” he says. 

Dormer says it’s important for lawyers to consider whether they are prepared for the eventuality that may result in a disruption of their practice. There are checklists available online that lawyers can use as a starting point when devising contingency plans, he says.

“Some law societies offer insight into practice management and they may include key points for lawyers to consider for this,” he says. 

Often a business continuity plan is the last thing lawyers are thinking about, Dormer says.

“For many, it’s not even on the radar,” he says. “We’ve seen cases where it doesn’t come up until something happens, but then it’s too late.

“If you’re left with nothing and have to recreate files, that could destroy the law firm.”

Dormer says that while there are few startup costs associated with a business continuity plan, it's more about the ongoing expenses such as making sure there are adequate backups for data.

But the price could be far greater without a plan, he adds.

“You could be open to liabilities as well — if you miss a filing date because you can’t access your system, it could put your client at risk and it could open you up to a complaint,” he says.

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