Implementing Your Law Firm Crisis Response Plan
Gina F. Rubel, Esq. | March 27, 2021
It’s not a matter of if a crisis will happen; it’s a matter of when. Every law firm no matter how big or small is vulnerable to a crisis. This was never more evident than during the Coronavirus pandemic, which began in early 2020 and continues into Q2, 2021, the time of this writing.
A crisis can take many forms. It is anything that has the potential to threaten people or property, disrupt your business, damage your law firm’s reputation, or hurt your bottom line. No matter the type of crisis, however, preparing your law firm crisis response plan should be the first priority.
Types of Response Plans
There are various types of response plans that a law firm should consider when conducting crisis and succession planning. I include succession here because while it should be the natural evolution of one’s career and the way matters should be handled, all too often someone becomes sick or disabled or passes away and their matters need to be handled efficiently and ethically.
Crisis Response Plan: Controls how and when you communicate with internal and external audiences: employees, authorities, clients, media, and strategic partners.
Emergency Response Plan: Primarily deals with employees’ safety when there are natural disasters, pandemics, violence in the workplace, etc.
Succession Plan: The process of identifying and developing new leaders who can replace old leaders when they depart, retire, or die. This can become a crisis when a firm loses named partners or rainmakers with big books of business.
Types of Law Firm Crises
Crisis scenarios often depend on the size of the firm and where the firm is located. Take, for example, the many storms of recent years which have resulted in devastating flooding. For businesses located near creeks and rivers that have a history of flooding, dealing with natural disasters should be a priority in a law firm crisis plan. Other types of incidents to consider include:
Active shooter, terrorist attacks, violence
Civil unrest / protests
Criminal wrongdoing or government investigation
Cybersecurity, malware, data breaches
Ethical violations, attorney suspensions, disbarment, scandals
Lawsuits against the firm and/or attorneys
Loss of attorneys (death/defection/illness)
Natural disasters / pandemics
Personnel issues / matters affecting employee families
Revenue reductions, drops in PPPs, acquisitions, layoffs, restructuring
Trial publicity (firm or client)
Steps for Implementing a Law Firm Crisis Response Plan
When faced with a crisis, every second counts. A solid law firm crisis response plan is half the battle.
1. Recognize the Issue
The first thing you must do is to determine who is on your crisis response team – be sure to have cell and home phones, personal and business email addresses, and social media profile URLs in your plan. Then ask:
- Who is implementing the crisis response plan?
- Who needs to be alerted (timing)?
- What is the issue(s)?
- What is the current or potential impact/damage?
REMINDER: Preserve evidence if necessary.
- What do we need to get across (if… then…)?
- What is our position (if… then…)?
- What are the legal and ethical issues/considerations?
CLIENT CRISES: Consider who asserts attorney-client privilege.
- What can/can’t the firm say?
- How can messages be manipulated?
- When is the right time to act?
2. Restrict the damage
Once these questions are answered, determine how you will restrict the damage. Conduct a team call or meeting and ask:
- How can we restrict/limit the damage?
- What resources do we need to mitigate current or future damage?
- Is there information that needs to be restricted, and, if so, how will we do that?
- Are there any legal notice requirements (cyber breach)?
- What do our insurance policies require?
- If we need to issue statements, who do they go to and what do you need to say? (Internal and external audiences)
- Who will be our spokesperson on this matter?
3. Remove the Problem (if possible)
If possible, do what you can to remove the problem. Every incident plays out differently, so in some cases, this will be impossible. However, if it’s possible to remove the problem, provide all necessary tools for experts to eradicate the issue. Once that is done, communicate about the issue with key audiences, then monitor and evaluate the situation.
4. Recover from the Incident
It is important to understand what recovery regarding the incident means to your firm. Ask if it is possible to recover from the incident, what resources you need to recover, and how your firm will handle future questions about this incident from clients, prospective clients, staff, and the media.
5. Resolve the Problem
Just because you may have removed the problem doesn’t mean it was fully resolved. Be sure to investigate, communicate, and update quality controls at this stage of the incident. Use a resolution statement to alert audiences that issue has been addressed. Provide necessary information to important audiences (what happened, how it may have happened, what was done to rectify it, and what is being done moving forward). Then, follow up with affected parties directly. Here are the questions to consider:
- What is the right resolution? If it’s a legal matter, is it settlement or litigation?
- Are you going to alert your key audiences about the resolution? If so, how?
- Will you communicate what the firm has done to resolve the issue?
- Determine and communicate what is being done to make sure this doesn’t happen again
- Determine and implement tactics to repair damage to the firm’s reputation (on and offline)
6. Refine Your Law Firm Crisis Response Plan
- After every incident, conduct a post-mortem review.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the crisis response team.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of your response tactics.
- Update your law firm crisis scenarios and response tactics in the crisis management plan.
- Update your contact lists (crisis response team, media, etc.).
- Re-train the crisis response team.