Preparing for a Disaster and A Lawyer's Ethical Obligations

Storm WarningWith the unpredictable weather patterns that have plagued our country earlier this year, as lawyers, we may think that the only thing that these weather systems (i.e. tornados, hurricanes, wild and flash flooding to name a few) may affect is our personal property or our vacation plans.  While storms like hurricanes are considered unusual for Maryland, we know that in recent history the rash of devastation and destruction caused by major storms, such as Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, have caused fatalities and millions of dollars in damage.

A natural disaster can shut down a lawyer’s law firm causing loss of revenue and data, prohibit access to critical client files and information, prevent access to the court system, and even cause unintentional disclosures [1]  which would result in an attorney running afoul of the ethical Rules of Professional Conduct.   In order to mitigate the risks caused by such disasters, it is prudent for a lawyer to have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan.

Many law firms do not have such a plan prepared and, unfortunately, begin to think about developing one once disaster strikes, which is oftentimes, too late. Critical aspects to a good disaster recovery and business continuity plan include taking several key steps:

  1. Analyze your data. Take a minute to analyze your office’s communication systems.  Determine what type of data your firm stores, the data’s format, and know where this data is stored. The most important data, of course, are the client files. Many lawyers keep hard copies of files stored in file cabinets, which reduces the risk of damage during some emergency systems.  However, especially in cases of flooding, it is always a good idea to have an electronic copy of this data scanned into the firm’s system.  This data may later be transmitted through several forms of electronic devices as well so it is advisable to find out from staff members where they either store or review the firm’s data.
  2. Backup your data. It is critical to the survival of your practice to back up your data. It is wise to also have an electronic database of client files either kept off-site or accessible through the cloud so that in the event of disaster, a firm can maintain client information, quickly contact the client, and establish business continuity at another location if it becomes necessary. [2]
  3. Test your Plan. No need to wait for disaster to strike to evaluate how effective your recovery plan is. If there are any vulnerable areas in your plan, make the necessary updates.  During your testing period, it will be important to get input from all of your employees to identify if there are any problems or breaches with the recovery plan. [3]
  4. Evaluate. Review the overall effectiveness of your plan. As technology is constantly changing, a continuous evaluation of your plan will require you to remain vigilant and perhaps use new software or tools which will require you to remain competent in that area. [4]

It is better to be prepared and never have the need for your disaster recovery plan then to face a natural disaster and have to start from square one.


[1] Unintentional disclosures implicates Maryland Lawyers’ Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6 (Confidentiality of Information)  which states:

  1. A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation, or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).
  2. A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary:
    1. to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm;
    2. to prevent the client from committing a crime or fraud that is reasonably certain to result in substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another and in furtherance of which the client has used or is using the lawyer’s services;
    3. to prevent, mitigate, or rectify substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another that is reasonably certain to result or has resulted from the client’s commission of a crime or fraud in furtherance of which the client has used the lawyer’s services;
    4. to secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules, a court order or other law;
    5. to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge, civil claim, or disciplinary complaint against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client; or
    6. to comply with these Rules, a court order or other law.

[2] While backing up data, lawyers need to be mindful of their ethical obligation under MLRPC 1.6 to ensure that client matters are kept confidential. It is always advisable to review the firm’s general policies and procedures to ensure that client confidentiality is not compromised– especially if data is stored in or passes through devices such as smartphones, portable computers, tablets, I-pads, servers, or in the cloud.

[3] Communication is the most important element of disaster planning.  Communication with your employees, clients, vendors, courts, and opposing counsel is key to a successful disaster recovery plan.

[4] In 2012, the American Bar Association amended the Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.1 (Competence) and added a new provision to Comment [8] which now advises attorneys, “[t]o maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.”

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