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Veteran IT Staff Keeps Law Firm In Practice

“We were able to do what we did because we had a seasoned staff that could
The midst of a crisis is no time to start inventing a disaster-recovery plan, says Nancy Karen, CIO of law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. She should know. Prior to Sept. 11, her firm occupied floors 54 and 56 through 59 in the north tower of the World Trade Center. All but one of the firm's 600 workers in the tower escaped before it crumbled in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Call it a major miracle. A minor miracle followed exactly one week later, when those workers were able to move into new, fully functioning Manhattan offices that Karen and her staff helped create from scratch.

With a roster of more than 1,300 attorneys, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood--the product of a May merger between Sidley & Austin and Brown & Wood--is one of the nation's biggest law firms. About a fifth of its worldwide staff worked in the Trade Center. In early September, the firm was in the process of moving workers from a midtown Manhattan office into the twin towers. Then the planes hit and plans changed.

Real-estate lawyers at the midtown office quickly secured four vacant floors in that same building. For Karen, who works in the firm's downtown Chicago headquarters, and her staffers in New York, that meant the work was just beginning. While building an IT infrastructure from the ground up in one week took some adroit moves, Karen says the real key to the quick recovery lay in steps the firm had taken before the attacks. "It's too late to start planning once a disaster occurs," says Karen, a native New Yorker who spent four years with telecommunications company Nynex (now Verizon Communications) before joining Sidley & Austin in 1997.

As Karen walked into the firm's Chicago office on the morning of Sept. 11, stunned colleagues told her of the horrific events unfolding at Sidley Austin's co-headquarters in New York. She immediately activated the firm's disaster-recovery plan, much of which had been created to deal with possible Y2K emergencies.

For starters, Karen ordered the remote shutdown of servers at the Trade Center site. Not knowing that the twin towers would fall, her hope was that the move would protect data on those servers should fire crews suddenly cut power.

The servers were ultimately destroyed, but Sidley Austin lost very little information. Virtually all data recorded prior to Sept. 11 was saved because the firm had been sending nightly backup tapes from the Trade Center to a storage facility in New Jersey. "I came out of a mainframe environment where you learn to practice best practices," Karen says. As part of its Y2K plan, offices around the country also had been paired as sister sites, with each prepared to act as a recovery site for its sibling. With Manhattan virtually sealed after the attacks, Karen had the tapes trucked from New Jersey to Chicago.

Other moves previously implemented by the firm's IT department proved invaluable. Its robust Web presence, which was launched last year, provided a way to communicate with clients concerned about the status of pending cases. New phone listings, emergency contact numbers, and other vital information were posted on the site. An 18-month-old program to build private extranets for top clients was used to create portals through which displaced employees could fetch E-mail.

Despite all the planning, restoring Sidley Austin's New York operations also took some fast action. The newly acquired space at the company's midtown offices needed a new infrastructure. On short notice, the firm's IT staff secured servers and more than 600 desktops, as well as a new voice-mail system. "We had an existing office with 200 workstations that became an office with about 850 workstations," Karen says. Lesser details couldn't be ignored, either. "The carpets needed shampooing," Karen says, noting that the firm needed to maintain the image of a premier law practice.

Coordinating the effort in Manhattan was Dennis O'Donovan, director of New York information services. O'Donovan had been based in the Trade Center, and Karen says his actions following the attacks verged on the heroic. After escaping the towers, O'Donovan, as Karen tells it, "walked several miles to the midtown office, slipping and slashing his hand along the way. Then he worked until midnight." Karen says O'Donovan's actions underscore the fact that any emergency plan is only as good as the people charged with enacting it. "We were able to do what we did because we had a seasoned staff that could handle whatever was thrown at them."

O'Donovan, who has worked with Karen throughout his two-year tenure at the firm, says one of the CIO's strongest attributes is her ability to get a message across. "Nancy is a stickler for crisp communication; very little of what she says is wasted, and she makes herself understood extremely well," he says. Those skills were called upon many times during the chaotic week following the attacks. "It was critical that the community in New York had a thorough understanding of where things stood day to day," O'Donovan says.

That the firm was up and running and able to do business in New York within days of the attacks is evidenced by the confidence clients have shown since then. In October, for instance, Sidley was appointed bond counsel for the New York City Transitional Finance Authority, helping to oversee the issuance of $1 billion in city recovery notes.

The attack, Karen says, taught her that nothing can be ruled out in disaster planning. It "made everybody aware of the importance of technology and how it's embedded in the day-to-day fabric of our firm, because they saw what happened when it was taken away."