As flood waters from Hurricane Harvey crippled much of the city,Houston-based law firms both large and small as well as technologyproviders with offices in the region appear to have been largelyable to keep operations going.

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Despite Hurricane Harvey, law offices and legal sectorbusinesses used remote operations and advanced technology, thoughmany of their employees could not temporarily reach downtown offices.

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It was essential, they said, that the businesses and firmsprepared ahead of time.

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For example, Tracee Whitley, Norton Rose Fulbright's U.S. chiefof operations, told Legaltech News that "days ahead of the storm,we asked our Houston-based … personnel to take home their assignedlaptops and confirm remote connectivity to avoid last-minutesupport issues."

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"We reached out to colleagues in our offices both in the U.S.and globally to make sure that they would be available to provideadditional resources for support functions. We also gave advancenotice to our disaster recovery co-location facility and ouroff-site help desk provider regarding possible impacts of thestorm," Whitley added. "We kept in contact with the buildingmanagement company regarding status of the physical space andservices." No system outages or significant support issues wereraised, according to Whitley.

In addition, the firm's office incidentmanagement team, which consists of senior partners as well asrepresentatives from multiple business services departments,participated in daily status calls covering personnel impacts andbusiness continuity.

"We used emails, automated alerts and intranet postings toprovide daily updates across the firm," Whitley said. "Being ableto account for all of our people through our automated alert systemwas extremely valuable, as their safety is our top priority."

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Similarly, Tim Armstrong, chief operating officer at Vinson& Elkins, told Legaltech News the firm has "fully redundantdata centers housing all firm systems, including telecom, so wedon't require a physical office to function."

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"We never had any system compromised," he added. "We did seeremote access escalate dramatically during the event, but we areengineered to support a very high level of remote activity via VPN[virtual private network] and VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure]technologies. They all performed as expected."

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Armstrong also noted the firm has what he describes as a "verydetailed, and well-maintained, BCP [business continuity plan]/DR[disaster recovery] plan that we developed after Tropical StormAllison in 2001, and we follow that plan with any named storm inthe Gulf [of Mexico]. We started taking action to prepare as soonas Harvey was announced."

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"That plan addresses staging key staff in specific locations,reminders to firm personnel about remote access, etc., so they areprepared for being out of the office for an extended period oftime," he explained.

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Whitley also noted that it's beneficial to have "samplecommunications prepared ahead of time. I would emphasize theimportance of having communication content drafted for varyinglevels of impact, from minimal [a delayed opening or half-dayclosure] to significant [days or weeks of impact]."

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"Business continuity is achievable by having early and frequentcommunication, established remote working policies and procedures,prepared systems and resource coverage and a cross-training of keyIT functions," Whitley said. "Our people who were not affected byHarvey continued to work remotely. With today's technology, theproductivity of a lawyer or business services professional is notdependent upon being in the office."

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Armstrong said that "over the past year or so we have alsotransitioned to many teleworking roles for administrative personnelacross many areas. This helped tremendously. We had no materiallapse in any process. All material operational roles werecovered—from technical support and training, to billing, tocompleting payroll functions and preparing for month end—when thestorm hit."

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In addition, the firm's lawyers "were able to support ourclients with no interruption, and firm operations continued as allwould expect," Armstrong said.

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This planning for disruption extended to the legal technologyworld. Shaun Cutter, chief technology officer for Epiq, said thecompany's Houston office has over 100 employees and a documentreview center, but "our center was briefly unreachable due to floodwaters."

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"While the office itself lost a physical connection to thenetwork, employees were able to get into systems remotely andcontinue to service our clients. No team was ever without access tocritical systems," Cutter explained.

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The company had a business continuity plan in place and executedit. "Matters were moved around our platform based on criticalclient deadlines," Cutter said. "Timely, frequent and pragmaticcommunication with clients and employees is a must and occurredregularly."

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When asked about the hurricane, Shahzad Bashir, president andCEO of Morae Global Corp., stressed that a major disaster is notthe time to initially use such technology.

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He explained that technology needs to be "built into theday-to-day behavior and processes," as well as strategy of a firmor company. For instance, lawyers can often use video conferencingrather than always taking jets to meetings, as many transactionscan be done without physical contact.

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His company also spreads storage and technology across the U.S.,ensuring through decentralization that "we don't have a singlepoint of failure," he said.

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Cutter identified some lessons for other organizations from thedisaster:

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1. It is critical to have a business continuity plan in place inadvance, and regularly test it. The BCP should include aprenegotiated contract/agreement with a physical restorationcompany dealing with office space and physical items, includingpaper and physical records.

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2. The RM strategy should include a vital records program thatidentifies not only critical systems but vital data/physicalrecords and a strategy for dispersal (physical and virtual) toensure any localized catastrophe will not wipe out anorganization's ability to protect its rights and meet itsobligations.

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3. Any major organization needs geographic diversity, so primaryand backup data centers should be in different locations. Forinstance, Epiq has thousands of miles between primary and backupdata centers.

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4. In Houston, the amount of flooding was unusually high soservice was lost from electrical providers. So, data centers shouldbe self-dependent in energy production. The amount of water thatfell was over the height of most diesel generators—many stoppedworking. Data centers with generators on the building's roof,rather than at ground level, would have had a greater chance ofworking.

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And then, of course, there is the attitude of employeesthemselves. Despite the severity of the natural disaster, Bashir praised the region'swider response to the hurricane and tragic flooding.

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"We as a community have really responded well," he said."Technology has played a huge part … through the crisis."

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