Planning for crisis events

Proper contingency planning can help ensure a firm is prepared for business disruption

Kevin Cheung

The COVID-19 pandemic that is now sweeping across the globe is resulting in significant disruptions to daily life. For many lawyers, contingency planning has been little more than a theoretical exercise, something at the bottom of our priority pile. The current health situation, which is shutting down businesses and services across Canada, demonstrates the value of crisis preplanning. This is a teachable moment with respect to developing internal responses to crisis situations in order to keep a business running, and also how to communicate those responses to interested external parties.

Internal Response

The internal response is the contingency plan, whether it is preplanned or made up on the fly. While one will not have a ready-made contingency plan for specific events, you can develop general responses to broad categories of critical events that compromises business continuity. This can range from a virus crippling global economies to physical damage to the office, or a disability to a key team member.

Preplanning allows you to tackle the problem in a calm and rational way, and will provide you with a framework for where to focus resources. Preplanning will provide you with an opportunity to think about what is most important to your firm, allowing you to more efficiently implement steps to protect these things in the face of a crisis.

The objective of the internal response is to allow businesses to continue serving clients, keep the lights on, and continue paying staff. If you are able to keep the office physically open during a crisis event, ensure that you have internal policies in accordance with managing that crisis. Using the COVID-19 situation as an example, your internal policies should include keeping a safe distance from one another, periodic wipe-downs of works stations, reminders of correct handwashing, and minimizing or eliminating in-person client contact.

If the threat requires a full or partial shutdown of the office, the internal response would involve processes to work remotely. This underscores the benefits of building into a contingency plan the capacity for any staff member to work remotely, ensuring that you are not left scrambling trying to figure out how to do so in a time of crisis. If one ever needed a reason for cloud-based technologies or remote access to firm and client information, there is no better reason than business continuity in the face of significant disruption.

Part of the internal response is communicating the plan to staff. The staff will look to the lawyers for leadership and direction. A well thought-out contingency plan will go a long way to delivering those things to them in a time of confusion. The more preplanning that is done, the more likely it is that your plan inspires confidence. There may be some resistance among staff to adopt some measures, but if you take the lead and do so yourself, your staff will follow.

External Response

In addition to developing an internal response to a crisis, it is important to communicate that response to your clients and the public. Being transparent about the steps your office is taking to maintain business continuity will provide a sense of confidence and comfort that matters are still being attended to. If your office is closing because of the crisis event, provide as much detail as possible as to the reason and the timing. If staff are required to worked remotely, let the public know that know these measures are taken to protect staff so that client matters are not compromised.

Whatever steps you take, keep clients and the public updated regularly. If you have a website, consider posting notices and updates on the homepage. This makes it quick and easily accessible by almost everyone. If you do not have a website, an email update or a telephone call would be in order. At the bare minimum, a notice posted on the office door is required.

In an effort to maintain client contact and keep appointments, consider offering alternatives to in-person meetings where possible, such as video or teleconference.

The goal of the external response is to provide clients and the public with a sense of confidence that you are on top of things, and a sense of comfort that they can continue to rely on you even in the face of a crisis. The more preplanning that has been done the better able you will be to confidently convey your response.

Ultimately, our goal is to continue serving clients despite business disruptions. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that proper contingency planning can go a long way towards that end.

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