Paperless Law Office, Part IV – Disaster Recovery

When I first planned to write about my paperless law office and disaster recovery, I thought I would be discussing hypothetical situations – all those “what ifs” that keep lawyers and insurance providers awake at night.  Then, without warning, I experienced a miniature “disaster” of my own: my hard drive failed.  One minute, I was working on a client document; the next – *poof!*– the screen froze.  “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just reboot.”  No dice.  The laptop would not even give me a login screen.  A visit to the Apple Genius Bar confirmed my suspicions: my hard drive, a solid-state drive just over a year old, was dead and could not be repaired.  This was not what we typically think of when we talk about “disaster recovery,” but it did put portions of my disaster preparedness to the test.  I would have been in a similar situation, for example, if my computer had been lost in a fire or damaged in a flood.

Thankfully, I was able to resume work very quickly.  Borrowing my wife’s laptop, I created a new user account for myself.  Under the new account, I first installed Dropbox.  Immediately, all my client files started syncing from the cloud to the local drive.  My practice management software, Clio, is web-based, so there was nothing to install there.  The laptop already had Word, Excel, and Acrobat Professional installed (and installing those would have been a simple matter anyway).  Setting up the email client to receive my work email took just a couple of minutes.  In very short order, I was good to go and working as though nothing had happened.

Because the busted laptop was several years old, I used the drive failure as an excuse to upgrade to a newer machine.  To set up the new laptop, I first restored all my applications, documents, and settings from Time Machine.  That process took a while, but left me with everything set up exactly as before.  Meanwhile, thanks to Dropbox and Clio, it literally took me longer to diagnose the problem – traveling to the Apple Store and waiting for the results – than it did to get back up and running on my wife’s computer.  If my client files had not been in Dropbox, or if I had not been using a web-based practice management solution like Clio, it would have been another story entirely; I would not have been able to do any client work until after the Time Machine restore had completed on the new laptop.  Instead, I lost only a couple of hours, and my clients never noticed the interruption.

The benefits of going paperless aren't just theoretical.

For those of you who still like to think about “what ifs,” check out this picture of the law office of Barnum, Pennick, & Barton, LLC, following the EF-5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011.

Photo courtesy of annabella82276 on Flickr

Photo courtesy of annabella82276 on Flickr

Four months later, the firm had managed to recover only about 40 percent of its files.  They did not have a disaster recovery plan in place when the tornado struck.  Similar disasters have struck much closer to home, too — just a couple of weeks after the EF-5 in Joplin, a tornado in Springfield, MA destroyed the offices of Balboni Associates. Massachusetts also enjoy snowstorms and floods, and there is always the risk of fire.

These experiences — my own mundane experience with a failed hard drive and the more spectacular disasters other firms have faced — raise important questions about paperless law offices and disaster preparedness.  Do you keep digital copies of your client files?  If so, how safe are they?  Do you have off-site backups?  What would happen if your work computer were lost or damaged beyond repair?  If somebody broke into your office and stole all of your electronic equipment, how soon could you be up and running again?  Would you be able to keep your client’s cases moving forward and avoid any potential prejudice due to lost files?

Suggested Best Practices

Here are a few of the precautions I take:

  1. Scan and backup all client files to Dropbox.
  2. For redundancy with Dropbox, also backup documents to a cloud backup service like CrashPlan.
  3. Keep local (and encrypted!) Time Machine backups.
  4. Use a web-based service like Clio for practice management.
  5. Make sure I have access to a backup computer if my work laptop fails.

As you can see, I rely heavily on technology to keep my work safe and secure.  Everything is backed up electronically and in multiple locations, so I will always have a way of recovering it.  Of course, sometimes it’s the technology itself that fails, but with proper planning, technology can also come to your rescue in a disaster situation — even if the “disaster” is something as mundane as a hard drive failure.