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With H1N1 cases rising law firms must prepare for the worst

Experts dole out advice on how firms can properly prepare for a pandemic, or any other emergency

By Donalee Moulton
May 22 2009 issue

First, there was SARS. Now, there is H1N1. Viruses and bacteria know no boundaries. For law firms, their clients and the communities in which they live and work, that means only one thing: a global pandemic is inevitable. Is your law firm prepared?

The likely answer is “no” if most law firms mirror the current business landscape in Canada. A recent survey conducted by Leger Marketing found that even though more than 80 percent of large Canadian companies are concerned about the impact of a flu pandemic on their business, half of them have no pandemic plan. Roughly 40 percent of companies without a plan said they intend to create one; however, for one-third of all companies pandemic planning is not even on their radar.

It should be, said Michael Torrance, an employment and labour lawyer with Ogilvy Renault LLP in Toronto (which has a 142-page pandemic plan). “The government of Ontario tells employers to work on the assumption that, at the height of a pandemic, 20 to 60 percent of their employees will be unavailable for work.  This scenario could obviously create significant disruption to normal operations of any business, including a law firm.

“Law firms, like all employers,” he added, “are also expected to take reasonable precautions to ensure a safe workplace for its employees under the occupational health and safety act. To meet these obligations in an organized and well-thought-out manner, a pandemic plan can be very helpful.”

One of the key benefits of an emergency preparedness plan that helps account for the unaccountable is spelling out who will do what when. “Law firms need to be proactive in deciding how to protect the firm and manage staff reactions and expectations as well as mitigate feelings of uncertainty,” said Jacques Bisson, chief administrative officer with McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Montreal.

“It is also essential to assure clients that in case of a pandemic the firm’s operations will be maintained for as long as possible,” he noted. “A pandemic plan is critical to both of these goals.”

Communications is critical, said Karen Bock, a partner in the Employment & Labour Group at Davis LLP in Toronto, and a central part of a firm’s plan will focus on this issue. “You need to be able to reach out to your people.”
That outreach, she noted, could include putting in place something as basic as a special call-in number where employees could access up-to-date, ongoing information about the firm.

Employees will want to know — and law firms will need to answer — such questions as, Will the firm continue to operate? If not, what happens to the employees? Do you continue to pay them? What do you do about individuals who refuse to come in to work?

Law firms have a few advantages when it comes to mitigating the damage inflicted by a pandemic. “A pandemic affects people, not physical surroundings nor technology,” said Claire Hardie, manager of business continuity planning at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto. “Fortunately, the service lawyers offer is their intellectual property, and it is not necessary for them to actually sit in their offices in order to serve their clients.  Alternate work arrangements can be put in place at any time well in advance of a pandemic.” 

“While every major public health issue is different and constantly changing, one common element is the possibility of quarantine or some other reason to stay at home,” she added.  “Lawyers who have home offices set up and the technology already in place for them to work remotely will be well ahead of the game in preparing for a pandemic.”

Clients will certainly expect their lawyers to be prepared, and accessible, if only for reassurance. “You need to manage fears,” said Bock. “Law firms really need to keep operating. In emergencies, people want to talk to their lawyers.”

Lawyers, of course, do not work in isolation. “If the pandemic scenario comes to fruition, significant absenteeism rates could seriously affect a law firm’s ability to meet client demands,” noted Torrance.  “For certain practice groups, such as employment and labour, service demands may be heightened as clients are forced to address their own workplace problems.”

A plan enhances the likelihood that clients’ needs — along with those of employees and the firm itself — will be met. Here’s why. “The plan should provide tools and processes that will assist with continuing necessary operations or services on a priority basis,” said Bisson.

The objectives to such a plan, he added, include protecting personnel, assets and informational resources; providing continuous services to the clients; minimizing economic losses resulting from interruptions to business functions; providing a program of action to facilitate an orderly response to continue business operations; and smoothing the way for a return to normal operations once the threat of a pandemic has ended.

At present, unfortunately, that threat is escalating.

Spread the word

Here are some tips from the B.C. government on how firms can handle pandemic-related issues:

  • Check that existing contingency plans are applicable to a pandemic, and that core business activities can be sustained over several weeks in the event of high employee absenteeism.
  • Plan accordingly for interruptions of essential governmental services like sanitation, water and power.
  • Identify your firm’s essential functions and who performs them.
  • Ensure staff trained so that work can still  be done in the event of an absentee rate of 25 to 30 percent.
  • Maintain a healthy work environment by ensuring adequate air circulation and posting tips on how to stop the spread of germs.
  • Promote hand-washing and coughing and sneezing etiquette. Provide alcohol-based hand-sanitizer products.
  • Determine which outside activities, such as transportation systems, are critical to maintaining operations and develop alternatives in case they cannot function normally.
  • Establish or expand policies and tools that enable employees to work from home with appropriate security and network access.
  • Expand online and self-service options for clients and business partners.
  • Tell employees about pandemic influenza and the steps the firm is taking to prepare for it.
  • Encourage employees to stay home if they are sick to stop the spread of illness, and update sick leave, and family and medical leave policies. Concern about lost wages is the largest deterrent to self-quarantine.

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