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Fire! How to survive & recover your practice

By Robert Ridgway

Since my law office was destroyed by fire on Saturday, August 28, 1999, the two comments I have most often heard are "It is a lawyer's worst nightmare" and "You should write an article." I can assure you that it is a nightmare and here is an article.

I awoke from a sound sleep on the first day of my vacation to the ringing of the phone. A glance at the clock showed that it was 4:47 a.m. and since there is seldom anything good that comes from such an early morning phone call, I developed an immediate pit in my stomach, covered with just a touch of anger at whomever would call that early in the morning.

"Bob, this is Nancy." Nancy is a client, whom I immediately thought was in some sort of trouble.
"Did you know that the buildings are on fire?" she continued. I answered "No" and asked if the buildings included my office. She said that she couldn't tell but that it was really bad and the whole block was on fire. As I left my house, a glance toward town where a huge red glow lit up the very early morning sky caused the pit in my stomach to grow.

A few minutes later, I was standing in the street across from my office where I had practiced law for the past 25 years, looking at a true inferno. It appeared that, indeed, the whole block was on fire. The building housing my office was on fire, but the fire had just started in the back area of my office. I approached a fireman about entering my office to retrieve some things, but realized the stupidity of my request when I finally noticed that even at that distance the intense heat was barely tolerable and I was having difficulty breathing from all of the smoke and ash flying through the air. So I retreated back across the street to watch 28 years of law practice go up in smoke. I was not alone, as only four structures on the entire block escaped total destruction and another was only partially saved. Six other businesses lost virtually everything.

What did I lose? It is easy to say that I lost everything but that is not exactly true. From the standpoint of furniture, equipment, inventory, and library, it is an accurate statement. My favorite comment is that we did not save even a paperclip. All closed client and bankruptcy trustee files and old financial records burned. Everything sitting out on top of shelves, file cabinets, and tables as well as everything hanging on the walls was destroyed. Anything plastic that was not burned was melted. The two upper floors and roof of the building collapsed into about one-half of my office, making much of it inaccessible to retrieve anything.
So, was it a nightmare? Yes. And, as I keep telling my secretaries, the true extent of the nightmare will probably not be known for years to come. But the immediate impact of the nightmare has been eased by a great community, a dedicated staff, tremendous cooperation from the courts, some planning, and some pure luck.

As I watched the fire continue to burn and move further and farther into my office, a never-ending procession of thoughts, memories, heartaches, and questions filled my head. Then wonderful things began to happen. My secretary became an instant hero on the street when it became known and buzzed through the crowd that she had an off-site backup disk for our main computer in her purse at home.

Offers of help began immediately, and by midmorning I had received invitations to share space in three other law offices, two accounting firms, and several other spaces, and actually had keys to two places. When I returned home later that morning, the answering machine was full of messages offering every kind of help imaginable from office space, records reconstruction, computers, and office furniture to "anything you need." Even the often criticized phone company came through and efficiently handled the forwarding of my business telephones and fax line to my home by the afternoon of the fire.

Then the luck came into play. An old safe without a fireproof rating turned out to be mostly fire-proof when a good part of it was under water. It protected all of my current financial records, although computer tapes and disks in it were destroyed from the heat. The contents of two file cabinets, which were very tightly packed and just happened to be in a front office in a protected cove, did not burn but were badly damaged from water and smoke. Those file cabinets contained current client files, some current bankruptcy trustee records and documents, and records pertaining to office operations. Some badly scorched files were retrieved from other areas and my personal desk. Even though the computer at my desk had been under water for hours, its hard drive survived and my computer consultants were able to retrieve the stored information from it.

"Where do you begin?" is the most often asked question. I began with dedicated staff members who jumped right in and focused on two areas first thing Monday morning: keeping things going and putting things back together. Because I had intended to be on vacation and therefore had cleared my calendar of all appointments and court appearances for the week after the fire, the adjustment was easier than it might have been for a normally scheduled week. By Monday morning we had a space from which to operate in a local accountant's office; by Tuesday we had a computer set up with the material from Jeanne's backup disc installed. We were in business and moving forward. Through the cooperation of the court a special order was entered allowing a com-mercial copier service to remove a designated number of orig-inal court files each evening. These were copied to recreate my files and returned to the court the next morning.
While it was important to have the court documents, all of the other materials typically found in a file such as correspondence, telephone messages, and notes made from the hearings are missed the most. All of the material removed from the fire scene had been taken to my home, and the process of going through it and deciding what was useless and what might be salvaged took a couple of days. This work had to be done out of doors, due to the incredible smell that permeated everything and because everything was covered with thick black smoke and ash.

We found a company that could restore records. We learned that paper begins to mildew within 24 hours of becoming wet and that, once mildew sets in, the paper grows together and cannot be salvaged. The restoration process began by freezing the records to stop the mildew. The frozen files were removed one by one to be sanitized and deodorized.

We also learned that after wet paper is dried it takes up about twice as much space as it did before, so entire files had to be photocopied and files recreated. Mainly, we learned that records retention is a very labor-intensive and expensive process. And that is where the value of planning became clear.
I can remember the first time my insurance agent talked to me about business records restoration insurance. I was resistant at the time because of the cost, but agreed to some limited coverage. Over the years that insurance coverage has increased and kept pace with my developing practice. It appears that the coverage will be sufficient to restore current client records and bankruptcy files.

For those of you who now feel a little chill in thinking about your own circumstances, I can tell you that it takes about $1,000 per file drawer to restore smoke and water-damaged files. In addition, remember that fireproof file cabinets usually are not water- and smoke-proof. Being in a ground floor office, I had from two to four feet of water in the office. The water coming out of my front door mail slot flowed like it was coming from a faucet. The planning aspect has a couple of other dimensions.

Earlier I mentioned the off-site computer backup disk. Keeping such a disk has been a policy in my office for a long time, and fortunately my staff followed through with that policy. It is important, however, to look at what is being backed up. We had our data backed up, but not our programs. Unless you have your initial installation material protected or off-site, that material will be gone.

With the exception of some records of one client, I had no original client documents at my office. Additionally, most files were put away and not "piled high on the floor." Sure, I lost things that were not put away and I regret that, but most of what I lost had been put away. And that takes me to what I call "being practically prepared," the third part of the planning process. I do not believe that most of us can afford to keep every record in fireproof file cabinets or safes. I also do not believe it is practical to be so completely paranoid that you have virtually everything put away all of the time. However, an occasional glance around the office with an assessment as to the consequences of everything you see being gone tomorrow is quite sobering.

Otherwise, I can only reassert the following advice:
1. Be aware of your surroundings and assess your risks.
2. Keep current backups of all computer programs and data off-site.
3. Review all aspects of your insurance coverage and make sure that your coverage is adequate for your potential loss.
4. Consider all of your risks--not only fire, but also the potential damage from water, smoke, and building collapse.
5. Do not keep any original documents belonging to others in your office. If you must do so, make sure they are protected.

Most of this advice paid off for me. Hopefully you will never need it.

Robert Ridgway is an attorney-bankruptcy trustee from Pendleton, OR. Reprinted from the ABA GPLink Spring-Summer 2001 issue.

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