While months have passed, the impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria can still be felt by the businesses affected. For law firms, these intense storms have brought to the forefront thoughts about preparedness and how to react in situations like this. In this episode of The Digital Edge, host Jim Calloway talks to Tom Bolt, whose firm was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria, about how lawyers can prepare for natural disasters. Their discussion includes what technology he used and needed, the importance of having a disaster recovery and business continuity policy in place, and what types of problems his firm has dealt with in the aftermath.
BoltNagi Firm founder and managing attorney, Tom Bolt, focuses his practice in government relations, banking, real estate, real estate finance, and estate planning.
Special thanks to our sponsors, ServeNow, Scorpion, Answer1, and Clio.
Mentioned in This Episode
The Digital Edge
When the Bell Tolls for Thee Disaster Planning and Recovery for Law Firms
Intro: Welcome to The Digital Edge with Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway, your hosts, both legal technologists, authors and lecturers, invite industry professionals to discuss a new topic related to lawyers and technology. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Jim Calloway: Welcome to the 120th edition of The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology. We are glad to have you with us. I am Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program.
Unfortunately my co-podcaster, Sharon Nelson of Sensei Enterprises, has had an emergency today, so I am going to wing it on my own.
Today our topic is, “When the Bell Tolls for Thee: Disaster Planning and Recovery for Law Firms.” But before we get started, we would like to thank our sponsors.
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I am very pleased to have as our guest today my good friend Tom Bolt. Tom is the Managing Attorney of BoltNagi PC, a well established and respected business law firm on Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Tom is currently a member of the ABA Board of Governors and past Chair of the ABA Law Practice Division.
In the wake of two category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit the U.S. Virgin Islands in September, his firm evacuated its offices of 30 years. Tom is currently assisting the territory’s recovery as Chair of the Advisory Board for the Salvation Army and facilitating FEMA ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services
Thanks for joining us today, Tom, I know you have been pretty busy the last few months.
Tom Bolt: Well, thanks for having me, Jim. I am honored to be your guest on this 120th edition of today’s show on Legal Talk Network. As you know, I am a big fan of Digital Edge and I always enjoy your timely topics and the valuable information that you and Sharon share with the members of the Legal Community. I must say that I find Digital Edge always helps me in my law practice, and of course, you and Sharon are two of my favorite law practice buddies.
Jim Calloway: Your check’s in the mail, Tom. Would you tell us just a little about your law firm, its size, where it’s located and what happened to your law firm during the hurricanes Irma and Maria?
Tom Bolt: Absolutely. BoltNagi is an eight-member business law firm based in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, with offices also in Greenville, South Carolina. We specialize in Fortune 1000 companies that have a presence in the Virgin Islands as well as local Virgin Islands businesses. Our practice areas include corporate, tax, estate planning, real estate, financial services, government relations, labored employment, and civil litigation.
On September the sixth the Virgin Islands were hit by a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane. That was Hurricane Irma. We had prepared as best we could for the storm utilizing our Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Policy for the firm, but as much planning as you do there’s things that happen that you don’t plan on, and the roof on our western wing of our firm which covered five offices, rolled off the structure and exposed those five offices.
Afterwards we were surveying the damage, we told the landlord that if he could cordon off that section of the law office that we could potentially withstand the own coming storm, which was another Category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria, which hit on the 19th and 20th of September; the landlord did nothing.
So we put into action what I called Operation Dunkirk. It was basically an evacuation of our law office of 30 something years. We contacted one of our firm’s clients that had the largest moving and storage company on the island with 5 trucks and 12 of his men plus everyone from all the employees from the office and we picked up our law office and evacuated to the second floor of a bank that the firm established some 10 years ago. So we were very fortunate, but we learned many lessons as a result of both of these hurricanes.
Jim Calloway: It seems that sometimes with our news, the Puerto Rico was overshadowed the people in the Virgin Islands, so how long were folks in the Virgin Islands without cell communication, Internet and power, and where are the Islands today along the path to recovery?
Tom Bolt: Well, Jim, cell phone service was never completely down, the great majority of cell phone service did not come back until just recently. We represent one of the largest telecommunication providers in the Virgin Islands and consequently have worked with FEMA and various other providers to restore communications. We have a call like every other day Monday, Wednesday and Friday discussing the various areas of concern.
Currently, most all of our cell sites are on generator power and a great deal of time has been spent just ensuring that the diesel fuel is powering up these sites, but we are making progress every day. Today is better than yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow, but it will be a long recovery coming back from these two storms.
Jim Calloway: I remember after Katrina I learned that people should — the lawyers out of their office should spray paint the phone number on the office so people came by looking for them. I was amused to see your website, actually I had a pop up of your cell phone number, Tom. I know most partners wouldn’t really want to put their cell phone number on the website, but you do what you need to do, don’t you?
Tom Bolt: Well, this was essential. Right now only 3% of the landline phones have returned. We are very fortunate in our law office that we do have all of our landlines and fax lines back, but it’s become very commonplace to use cell phone lines and to depend upon cell phone lines for communication. Interesting enough though in the early days after the hurricane, texting was the communication means of choice.
Jim Calloway: It takes a lot less bandwidth to text. Was your law firm recovery helped by the fact that you had a branch office in South Carolina, that was the main repository of your firm, data making it a bit easier to restore?
Tom Bolt: Well, most surely our server was down, our e-mail was down, but through our website we communicated with clients and provided them with an alternative. The office in South Carolina did not experience the problems that we did, they were able to interface with clients, we were able to establish an alternative e-mail address that they were able to monitor, so we could communicate with clients particularly those on the US mainland. So indeed having an office in South Carolina on the mainland did help us in our recovery.
Jim Calloway: You mentioned having a disaster recovery or business continuity plan, did it work as expected?
Tom Bolt: Yes and no. The disaster recovery and business continuity policy that was required by a number of our clients particularly our banking clients that they were concerned that there was a provision for disaster recovery and business continuity, but as well as you can plan, there’s no way that anyone can truly plan for two back to back Category 5 hurricanes, and so, there were many things that we didn’t anticipate, but we did the best we can, and I would advice that yes, you should have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan, but you should not leave it on the shelf. You need to monitor it, you need to have training with your staff, you need to make sure that it is up to date and in place. I mean, a disaster can strike at any moment.
Jim Calloway: Well, that’s certainly good advice. Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Jim Calloway: Welcome back to The Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today this topic is, “When the Bell Tolls for Thee: Disaster Planning and Recovery for Law Firms.” Our guest is Tom Bolt, the Managing Attorney of BoltNagi PC, a business law firm on Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. So what lessons did you learn from these disasters and what would you do differently in the future?
Tom Bolt: Well, I was not as up-to-date on technology as I would hope to be. I mean, I thought that having been a veteran of ABA TECHSHOW, having been the Chair of the ABA’s Law Practice Division, I thought I was up on technology, but at last I was not, and one of the things was the issue of server for your law firm and having all your information.
The idea was that in the Virgin Islands the belief was that you had to have your server based in the Virgin Islands because you could not depend upon Internet service, even with redundancy you still — the Internet service was relatively unreliable. So you needed to have that server based in the Virgin Islands protected as best you could which we did have. But, what happened after the storm was that that server was down and so the office in South Carolina could not connect with it and we could not connect with it.
What we have learned since then is that they are hybrid servers that are available. Hybrid in that you can have your local server, so if your Internet goes down, you keep running, but also the main server is in the cloud and is available in the cloud and can continue to provide information throughout the storm and after the storm.
In the same respect we found the idea of a mail server, in certain mail programs that are in the cloud so that again e-mail went completely down across the Board throughout the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a result of the storms. I mean, it was down for several weeks if not more, but with certain mail servers and certain e-mail programs again that information can be in the cloud, you can access it and you can continue to receive e-mail on your phones and respond to your clients.
So those were two important lessons that I learned after the fact. But again, just having the business continuity plan, I think it was good to know who was responsible for what and to understand the various operations of the firm, the various business functions of the firm, who was the primary person that was responsible, who were the alternates, the issues of other various vital information and databases, I mean, all that was quite important and good.
One of the other things that was not necessarily in the business continuity plan but I felt was very necessary was, again, is the inventory, what you have in the firm, of all your physical property that you have and to take photographs, I think that’s very important, that’s often recommended for you and your home, and you need to do the same in your law office.
Jim Calloway: How many firms were impacted in the Virgin Islands and what kind of damage was done to those law firms?
Tim Bolt: Well, I mean, when I first think about this, I mean, I want to say that 4-5 firms were impacted, but then as I reflect again on this issue, I say they all were affected. In some way, form or fashion, every law firm, every lawyer has been impacted by these two Category 5 hurricanes back to back.
Some firms completely lost their office, worse than our firm, there were several firms that their entire offices were obliterated. There were others that had severe flooding and even though they had no physical damage to their structure, but because of the flooding, they had to have all the carpet and various other things removed.
So there weren’t any number of ways that lawyers were impacted, but again, I don’t think anyone escaped without some damage to their firm.
Jim Calloway: Well, two Category 5 hurricanes that close together is quite unprecedented, but would you say the most of the law firms were well prepared, partially prepared or not really prepared?
Tim Bolt: I think, I mean, I’d say partially prepared. I mean, we’d experienced hurricanes in the past, I mean, we had Hugo in 1989, we had Marilyn in 1995, so we had all experienced hurricanes to a certain degree, but, we can always be better prepared and we’ve learned lessons in the way we build and rebuild, we’ve learned lessons from Marilyn in ‘95 and certainly we’ve learned additional lessons from the properties and the law firms that were rebuilt after Marilyn, what didn’t survive with the latest hurricane. So we will be building back better, stronger than before.
Jim Calloway: Tom, you’ve been involved with an organization in the Virgin Islands to help both law firms and people who need access to lawyers, would you tell our listeners a little bit about that?
Tim Bolt: Well, I’ve been involved in several ways to help law firms, I mean, working with the American Bar Association — the American Bar Association has a MOU through our Young Lawyers Division with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to provide Disaster Legal Services.
And so we have helped coordinate that with legal services of the Virgin Islands and other numbers of the private Bar to help people that have been impacted by the storms. It’s amazing what happens in the — how the economy and the whole society changes and the various things. Initially, the issues are usually landlord-tenant, there could be issues where the tenant has a lease, a valid lease, comes home and finds himself, and that all of his possessions put out on the street because the landlord wants to move into his leased apartment.
There could be labor and employment matters where they worked prior to the hurricane but have not received payment. There can be child custody issues where one parent wants to leave and take children with them, while the other parent wants to stay in their home. So there are number of issues that come up and we deal with that.
I mean, we’ve had as many as 50 calls a day that have come as a result of Hurricane Irma and Maria. What we’re seeing now and what we will be going to from these early questions that have affected people in their legal service needs, we are going to see things such as dealing with contractors and problems with contractors and insurance claims, and that’s what we are moving into those type of questions.
In the same respect, I mean, we’ve also helped just in a general way, I am the Chair of the Salvation Army of the Virgin Islands, their Advisory Board and what we saw early on was just the need for basic human necessity, and providing food to those in need and there was a tremendous need there. I mean I witnessed for the first time in my almost 40 years in the Virgin Islands, the face of hunger, and it was not Jim a pretty sight, I mean, there were many people that were out, had no food, they had no way to get food.
And we were providing as many as a thousand meals a day at the various meal services that the Salvation Army and other organizations were providing here in the Islands.
Jim Calloway: Well, certainly the needs will continue, Tom, and thanks for all your help for those people. Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Jim Calloway: Welcome back to The Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is “When the Bell Tolls for Thee: Disaster Planning and Recovery for Law Firms.” And our guest is Tom Bolt.
Tom, has there been much discussion about climate change and what this might mean for emergency preparedness for law firms and really everyone in the Virgin Islands?
Tim Bolt: Well, yes, I mean, there has been some discussion about climate change, and what I think the general perception is that hurricanes and these various other extreme weather conditions are not just a one-off. This is the wave of the future that we are going to see more and more extreme weather impacting us.
It’s a foregone conclusion that these severe storms will be more frequent, and we’ve also – there are number of ABA entities, I am on the — I am the Board of Governors liaison to the Section on Environment, Energy and Regulatory, which is, they even have a climate change committee that is looking at the various impact that this extreme weather is having upon business and upon law firms.
So, no, I think that we have climate change with us and we’re going to see more and more extreme weather now and into the future.
Jim Calloway: Tom, you’ve been the Chair of the ABA Law Practice Division and now serving the ABA’s House of Delegates, are there other resources from the ABA at large and particularly the Law Practice Division that might be useful to our listeners?
Tim Bolt: Well, absolutely. You know, Jim, I haven’t stopped being the ABA Law Practice Division’s biggest cheerleader. It was through the Law Practice Division that I’ve built my practice. When we started BoltNagi back in 1991, it was with the Law Private Division at my side.
There are a number of resources that the Law Practice Division has made available with regard to disasters. The Standing Committee on Disaster Preparedness and response of the American Bar Association also has resources available and various sections and divisions of the ABA are also working on developing disaster preparedness and response resources for their particular substantive area of concern in the law.
Jim Calloway: Well, we are going to put with the podcast some links to the ABA and Law Practice Division’s resources for disaster planning that will hopefully be useful to our listeners.
Thanks for being our guest today, Tom. I have to say in my years with the Law Practice Division and I know Sharon believes this too, you have become a very close friend and a great resource and your public spiritedness as your work with the Salvation Army demonstrates is an example for all of us, so I know you won’t put in the plug, but if some of our listeners are moved by this, the Salvation Army of the Virgin Islands could certainly use any of your financial support. So thanks for coming to the podcast today. We appreciate your being with us.
Tom Bolt: Thank you, Jim. I look forward to continue to work together.
Jim Calloway: That does it for this edition of The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology. And remember, you can subscribe to all the editions of this podcast at HYPERLINK “http://www.legaltalknetwork.com” legaltalknetwork.com or on Apple podcast. And if you enjoyed this podcast please rate us in Apple podcast. And, I don’t have Sharon with us today, so I will just say, goodbye to all of our listeners and happy trails to all of you.
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