Clifford's Notes

Creating a disaster plan

Robert A. Clifford

Clifford Law Offices

December 2011

Nearly 7 inches of rain fell overnight atO'Hare International Airport last July 23, flooding the basement of a nearby office building that housed a Chicago law firm. All phones, faxes and electrical equipment were out of service for weeks.

Last winter, a record snowfall shut down Lake Shore Drive, causing dozens of drivers to abandon their vehicles and crippling access to the city along that route for days.

Just last May, a mild earthquake rattled northern Illinois with the epicenter in Elgin, registering 3.6 on the Richter scale. And those are calamities just in the Chicago area. Tornadoes and high winds hit here and other parts of the country and now forecasters are talking about possibly the upcoming winter to be the worst in Chicago history.

What are law firms doing to prepare for potential disasters? The topic has been an issue for the American Bar Association since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and it is one of my initiatives as president of The Chicago Bar Association. Many of us can recall when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order of the city before the 2005 storm — yet when Katrina struck, an estimated 100,000 of the city's half-million residents remained. For businesses, holding on to storage boxes or computers isn't going to help when the office itself is being washed away.

As the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness reports, even in the event of a disaster, "lawyers and judges have an ethical responsibility for the safety of their employees and an obligation to their clients and the people of their communities to continue to operate in a prudent and efficient manner, even in the circumstance of an impending or ongoing threat." At the August Annual Meeting, the ABA offered a program, "Courting Disaster: Tools to Help You Create a Disaster Plan Now." Lawyers can go on the ABA's website, americanbar.org, to get a free copy of its new publication, "Surviving a Disaster: A Lawyer's Guide to Disaster Planning."

The ABA adopted in 2007 what has been called the Katrina Rule. The model rule allows out-of-state lawyers to provide pro bono legal services in an area struck by disaster. It also provides for lawyers whose legal practices have been disrupted by a major disaster to practice law on a temporary basis for a reasonable period of time in an outside jurisdiction. Several states have adopted the Katrina Rule. Illinois is not yet among them — something the Illinois Supreme Court may consider before the next disaster happens.

Certain steps need to be taken in times of disaster that include making extra copies of important documents such as insurance policies and financial records and up-to-date contact information for employees and clients; and backing up computer programs, including the firm's court calendar, at off-site accessible places. Office staff need to put a business continuity plan into effect. The use of technology allows one to communicate from almost anywhere and a "virtual office" may allow for messaging and other communication to continue. Companies need to heed warnings from local and federal authorities regarding shutting down or evacuating because the most important priority, of course, is protecting people in the building or affected area.

I recall a recent small fire in a downtown office building that caused considerable smoke damage to the point where it was unsafe for employees to return. When law firms were not allowed back in because of the extensive cleanup and disinfecting that was necessary, they were forced to move to another Loop building on a moment's notice for a few months with limited or no access to their files. A nightmare, to say the least, but the important thing is everyone was safe. It is important to create a written disaster plan and educate everyone at the firm before disaster strikes.

Perhaps one of the most tragic disasters in Chicago was the fire in the Cook County Administration Building. I write this on the eighth anniversary of the tragedy — a late Friday afternoon when fire billowing from an upper floor was apparent from many other downtown high-rises, including ours. Confusion and lack of communication led to deaths of and serious injuries to those overcome by smoke in locked stairwells.

One of the stories that comes to my mind is a cleaning woman who tried to escape. When others on the cleaning team huddled across the street at the Daley Center, they were asking through their tears where the last co-worker was. She perished in the stairwell. The inevitable lawsuits, of which I was lead counsel, changed Chicago 911 communications in high-rises.

There needs to be a way to account for all workers. When an evacuation occurs, a leader should be appointed for each floor or area or work group who will guide the workers to safety and tell rescue workers who is at work and who isn't. Most importantly, the identities of those missing must be conveyed to rescuers as soon as possible.

Experts advise to make sure your disaster plan provides for leadership, support and vision. If everyone understands his or her role and is able to step up to accomplish assigned tasks, everyone can help in the response.

And remember to keep the disaster plan itself in a secure place.