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Guest Post: Practice Interruptions Brought on by National Disasters: Unexpected Consequences and Getting Through

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The Boston Marathon Bombings shook Boston last month. No one affected by the tragedy has since experienced anything like normalcy, in the sense of things being ‘the way they used to be’ — and probably never will again. Given the proximity of the blasts to businesses along the Marathon route, many local businesses, including law firms, were closed. A number of attorneys were shut out of their physical offices for as long as two weeks after the bombings. This is one attorney’s story: Brian McLaughlin is a solo attorney serving clients in the areas of disability consulting and unemployment benefits. He is active in taking on pro bono cases, both for the Boston Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and Shelter Legal Services. Brian is a frequent speaker on disability issues, and is an advocate for accessibility for disabled persons. You can learn more about Brian at his website, particularly at his bio page.
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Sitting in a hot, crowded room, on the final day of MCLE’s annual ‘Hanging Your Shingle’ program, I was dreading the final presentation of the day: office backup and disaster preparedness. It was not until Patriots’ Day of this year that I realized what it all meant. Following the initial shock and horror I experienced over the Boston Marathon bombings, and the sorrow I felt for victims and their loved ones, I realized that one of the bombings had occurred right in front of my office.
I had two court dates that same week, which I had long been preparing for and anticipating. I checked my voicemail and realized that, despite the tragedy, my client’s legal matters still moved forward. What was I to do?
This guest blog post is intended to help other solo practitioners by way of do’s and don’t’s that I learned from my own personal experience following the Marathon bombings:
I had read somewhere that 50% of lawyers give out their cellphone numbers, and that about 50% do not. Until recently, I had only given out my number to existing clients, and I did not state my alternative contact number on my voicemail. I realized how critically important it was to leave my cellphone number on my answering machine, despite my concerns about separating my work from my personal life. My concerns had always centered around answering the phone at the wrong time, and speaking off-the-cuff, without having the client’s file in front of me. In the time following the Marathon bombings, I quickly realized that, for clients, access to their attorney was the most important thing, even if I didn’t have their files at hand. But, there are a number of parties to each case; so, during the week of the disaster, I also called each court in which I had to appear, and each opposing counsel I was to appear against, and explained where my office was and what the situation was. (I ended up being locked out of my office for about two weeks.) And, here is why it is critically important to maintain good relationships with opposing counsel: if I had not worked together with a particular opposing counsel to facilitate discovery in one of the cases on which I was scheduled to appear during the week of the Marathon, I would not have been able to call him and get a continuance.
After I handled my most immediate scheduling concerns, the next question became: Where would I work? I knew I had to keep the train moving; but, I didn’t quite know how. So, I reached out to the folks at the Social Law Library, to see if I could set up shop there for the rest of the week. They were extremely gracious, and allowed me to. In addition to the staff of the Social Law Library, I would also like to extend my thanks to the colleagues who wrote notes of support, offered their own spaces and made other efforts to help me out.
In addition to the acquisition of short-term office space, my use of remote access technology also helped me to continue to practice; and, I would urge any solo practitioner out there to obtain appropriate remote access software systems for their law firms, as well. Without my remote access tools, I would have been in deep trouble, and unable to get at my files, which were behind the police cordon. And, I should take a moment to thank my law clerk, as well, since he’s the one who makes sure that all of my paperwork is scanned in electronically. This process may seem painstaking, anal-retentive and difficult to stay on top of; however, it is well worth the time and effort when your cards are down, and the unexpected has occurred.
There are, though, some things that I wish I could have done better. For one, I should have had a smartphone. I didn’t want to give in, and get a smartphone, just because everybody else has one; but, I realize now that not having remote access to email handy just doesn’t work. The second thing I learned from my experience is that I should have reached out to my clients sooner than I did, to inform them of my office’s proximity to the bomb site, and to tell them that I would be working at various locations for the forseeable future. I had assumed that, since they had previously been to my office, they would have figured it out. But, you know what happens when you make assumptions . . .
I hope that this blog post serves to help another solo attorney out there. And, I truly hope that this never happens again.

CATEGORIES: Client Relations | Law Firm Management | Planning | Productivity | Risk Management | Technology

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