January 28, 2023

A Decade on, Hurricane Katrina Continues To Provide Legal Operations Lessons For Today

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By Ed Silverstein, From Legaltech News
Now, with advances in technology, if an event like Katrina hit, many of the tech issues back then likely would not arise today, attorneys said.
It has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but its lessons for preparedness continue to be critical for law firms. Firms, like other businesses, had tried to plan for the storm, but its impact was overwhelming for the Gulf region. The devastation was widespread. There were many casualties.
The obvious first priority was to get in touch with employees to find out if they were okay. This was often hard to do given the breakdown in communications technologies and the fact so many residents had left the region.
Michael Hunt, now managing partner at Phelps Dunbar, recalled that those employees whose whereabouts were not known, were often located by “word of mouth” as colleagues connected with employees had found temporary shelter.
Many firms also realized as the storm approached they would be unable to use existing office after Katrina hit.
Some firms were proactive. Adams and Reese quickly leased four floors of office space in Baton Rouge for the New Orleans staff. Charles “Chuck” Adams, who was the firm’s managing partner at the time, said they ordered computers and networking support quickly, and were “up and running about a week later.”
Phelps Dunbar also found office space quickly, sending faxes to clients and informed them about office relocations.
For some law firms located in modern, high-rise buildings, there was no direct flooding, but neighborhoods were closed and power was off. Eventually, these firms were able to get workers into offices, severs in these offices needed to be relocated to temporary workspaces. For Phelps Dunbar, that meant carrying servers down 20 flights of stairs.
Other law firm office were completely destroyed by the flooding and winds. Many located in St. Bernard’s Parish in “lost everything,” recalls Carmelite M. Bertaut, who was the New Orleans Bar Association president-elect at time of Katrina and took over as president shortly thereafter, and now works for Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann. Other offices, which included many Victorian-style houses, located around Canal Street, were “badly flooded,” as well, she said.
But even if the firms had prepared, the results of the hurricane and flooding made some plans unworkable.
Finding an Ethernet Port in a Storm
Tim Doody, firm administrator at Chaffe McCall, found that flood waters covered the roof of his house, and none of his siblings had livable houses either. He could not reach anyone from the law firm and was not sure he had a job. “My life had changed dramatically,” Doody said. He was thinking about moving out of the region. After about three days, he was able to reach an attorney who was on the firm’s management committee. He remembered the name of the attorney’s parents and Doody tried calling their home. “Sure enough that’s where he was,” Doody recalled. The two then met at the firm’s Baton Rouge office.
In Doody’s recollection, decisions often had to be made instantaneously to find employee housing, computer and phone equipment. Similarly, their tech specialist had left before Katrina had to be paid more to return the storm-ravaged region. Doody gave the hotel room he was using for his family over to accommodate the technological support of the firm.
A common theme for attorneys and other residents in the region was the failure of reliable cell service. Satellite phones did not always work that well, either.
“Texting is how we could communicate…The texting worked when the cell phones didn’t,” Bertaut said. “Cell phone use was absolutely worthless.”
She recalled that mobile carriers waived bills for 504 area code numbers – through November.
Her family had one laptop and one desktop. The battery went out on the laptop and they could not get a new battery because delivery was not being made into the region. The only option she had was to wait in line at a coffee shop – in the town where they evacuated to – where there were two functioning desktop computers. The connections were poor.
To make matters worse, her family was staying at a house shared by three attorneys who took turns using a rotary dial phone. The lack of state court documentation online compounded the frustration of being displaced from firm offices.
Throughout the region, many clients had problems locating lawyers. Eventually, the state bar association had email addresses for attorneys posted on the organization’s website.
The New Orleans Bar Association provided attorneys an Internet café and gave them space to meet with clients. First City Court held court in the bar association offices, too.
In addition, the governor of Louisiana issued a cessation of all legal deadlines after Katrina. “You couldn’t find courts to file,” Bertaut said. “Nothing was to be gained by saying, ‘I won’t give you that extension.’”
The New Reality
Looking to today, with advances in technology, if an event hit like Katrina hit, many of the tech issues back then likely would not arise today, attorneys said.
Adams and Reese has since gotten redundant systems in underground bunkers in Tennessee so it will have immediate access to data. Phelps Dunbar has leased space from a Thomson Reuters secure facility in Minnesota to serve all of its offices.
“Technology has moved to more mobility,” Hunt said.
“It’s just a different world,” Bertaut adds. Much of the paperwork from courts are now online. Many documents are now being sent via email which lets users recover documents easily. Firms also back up documents so they do not lose anything.
“We should be able to be up and running without too much of an issue,” Doody said, given the new technology now in place such as smartphones and the use of virtual or off-site servers.
Law firms now also have lawyers and other employees regularly update information such as likely places they would go in case of a storm, personal email addresses and emergency contacts. Many firms also have a phone system that can send out alerts. Some have databases of available hotels, too.
Now, lawyers can work from anywhere, but that raises questions. Is it better for firm staff to gather together in an actual office? Bertraut recalled the benefits of being together with other attorneys in a satellite office in Baton Rouge after Katrina.
“You need that sense of community,” Bertaut said. “You draw strength from each other.”
Adams also recalled that coming to the office was the “only peace” many employees had, given that many were living with extended family, sometimes with as many as six or eight families and they often had lost everything. But they never missed a paycheck.
Image by NOAA
For more on this story go to: http://www.legaltechnews.com/id=1202736070663/A-Decade-on-Hurricane-Katrina-Continues-To-Provide-Legal-Operations-Lessons-For-Today#ixzz3kUhyblsq

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