This article is the sixth of a series that was published in the De Rebus, the South African Attorneys Journal, and it is designed to let the smaller practice identify with practice management issues and to assist in increasing the productivity of smaller firms.

Everyone seems to be on about Information Technology (IT) these days and you cannot turn around without someone telling you that you need a specific software system in your firm. Software vendors like calling their software solutions and believe that the labeling of their program as such will make you buy it. You may have heard a software salesman say that they do not sell software . . . they sell solutions!

In truth, the software vendor whose software does not provide some sort of solution is worth nothing.

In a later article, we might delve into what type of software is either good or bad for your firm, but before we attempt that, we need to highlight the risks of using IT and the need for a proper back-up system. The rule is very simple: If you do not have a back-up system in your firm, you should not have computers or software. The back-up system is therefore the very first thing that you need to acquire . . . not the last.

We can explore the reasons by looking at four basic threats for every firm. Let us imagine a couple of scenarios:

Fire: How many of you remember the pictures on the news in 1994 when a fire broke out at the South African Agricultural Union (SAAU) building in the centre of Pretoria? Besides the fire, the SAAU building was also well known for the number of law firms that have their offices in it. Lets imagine your office is in the SAAU building and assume that you specialise in Road Accident Fund matters. You have 1 000 files that are all in various stages of the claims process. Your accounting system indicates that your clients currently owe you R1 million – at about R1 000 per file. Now imagine that a fire burns down the building and, in doing so, also burns down your office, your paper files, your computers and your accounting system. All your records are gone. The reality is quite simple: If you cannot restore the information on your accounting system, you will never be able to invoice your clients. But, if you had some sort of copy of the information, you could be back on your feet in no time.

Theft: The next scenario is one where you have a criminal law practice. You have a computer that is used for case law and to invoice your clients. While you are at court dealing with one of your files, someone breaks into your office and steals your computer. Again, you are in the position where you cannot invoice your clients. The best you can do is to reconstruct your accounting information by working through every paper file in your office. Think of the time required to sort out such a mess.

Viruses: The next scenario is one where you have a conveyancing practice with five staff members, each of them with access to e-mails and the Internet. One of your staff members downloads a virus from the Internet or opens an e-mail with a virus attached to it, and the virus corrupts all the information on your computers or, even worse, deletes all your data. Once again your information is lost and you cannot complete your work. Besides not being able to work, think of the Financial Intelligence Centre Act 38 of 2001 (FICA) information that you may have lost and what sort of fine you may be liable for when the authorities realise that you do not comply with the FICA legislation.

Staff: The last scenario assumes that you have a debt collection firm and you make use of templates that you have created over the past decade or two. You have serious words with a staff member regarding her poor performance at work and you give her notice to leave at the end of the month. She decides to get even and deletes all your templates from your computers on her last day at work. The next day a new secretary starts in her place just to find that there are no templates on your server. The result is that it takes you weeks to get the new secretary to work optimally.

Even though the risks associated with using technology in your practice stretch much further than the four scenarios mentioned above, the message is clear: If you do not have a copy of your information you risk losing the entire business.

What, then, is the solution? Many IT salesmen will try to convince you that their back-up solution (there we go with that word again) is the only reliable one in the market. Back-up solutions can vary from very simple (and inexpensive) to very complex (and very pricey). You need to understand that a back-up solution is nothing other than a way to copy information, and the discipline to do it regularly, followed by taking the copied information off-site. That is it. An entry level back-up solution would involve you buying writable CDs, copying your data onto them daily or weekly (depending on how much data you generate on a daily basis) and then taking the copied CDs home with you at the end of the day. If your computers are stolen, you can replace the hardware, fetch your CDs from home and copy the data back onto your server. This is a perfect back-up solution.

The next level up would be to buy a couple of removable hard drives and to copy your data onto them. Alternate them so that you have one back-up at home and another at the office at any given stage. You could instruct your server to make a copy automatically at a specific time of every day. If you increase your budget for a backup solution slightly you could install a tape-streaming device that would run a back-up process every evening. In the morning, you simply eject the tape and take that home. Use a new tape for the next days back-up. On the really pricey side, you could opt for an Internet-assisted back-up solution where your information is copied over to the servers of a back-up specialist company as you work, which will then maintain your back-ups and restore your information if you run into trouble. This sounds great but it often costs the earth.

The rules for a back-up solution are simple and must strictly be adhered to if you make use of any technology in your firm. They are:

  • Make a copy of your data as regularly as possible.
  • Always keep the copy separate from your computer or server.
  • Remove the copy to an off-site location at night.
  • Make sure that the copy of your data is readable and retrievable.
  • If you delegate the task of making a back-up to someone else, you personally need to make sure that it is in fact done.

There are so many things in South Africa’s economy that make it difficult for a lawyer to survive. One does not have to add poor backup procedures to the list. There are some things you cannot control. Proper back-up procedures, however, require only a bit of discipline and a planned process. Imagine how stupid you will feel if you have to admit to family and friends that your bankruptcy is due to the fact that you forgot (or neglected) to make a copy of your information. That would just be silly.

This article was first published in the July 2008 issue of De Rebus, the SA Attorneys Journal, and it is republished here with the permission of the Law Society of South Africa.