In the spring of 2000, Harris Beach moved its New York City office into the 85th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. The view was spectacular, and one of our attorneys exclaimed, “You can see forever, and we will be here forever.” The office was fondly known around the firm as “our acre in the sky.” On Sept. 11, 2001, that “acre” was taken away.
In our Rochester office, word began to spread that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. We gathered in the cafeteria during the first part of Tuesday morning and watched the tragedy of 9/11 unfold on television, as did millions of other people from around the nation and from around the world. With a horrible sense of disbelief, we watched one of our offices collapsing into rubble. Those were our colleagues and friends in that building. The emotion was overwhelming. We closed all of our offices at 11 a.m.
Although business was secondary at that point in time, work had to be done to relocate more than 100 attorneys and staff who had worked in the South Tower. A telephone tree was quickly established, and by the evening of Sept. 11 we had accounted for all but 22 individuals. As the week progressed, we realized our worst fears.
It became evident that six individuals within our firm perished during the collapse of the towers. Those lost were attorneys Mark A. Brisman, Joanne F. Weil and Andrew S. Zucker and staff members Irina Kolpakova and Sharon Millan. Hector Tamayo, the construction manager supervising the office’s renovations, was the sixth victim. In dedication to their memory, we established the Spirit of Renewal Remembrance Award as an annual Harris Beach scholarship fund that also recognizes the resilience, optimism and spirit of renewal demonstrated by Harris Beach and the country.
Within two days we had secured space at a temporary location on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan that had been made possible by one of our clients, Harris Interactive Inc. By Monday, Sept. 17, we had re-established email accounts and voice-mail capacity for all New York City attorneys and started working on establishing telephone and fax capabilities. All main New York City telephone numbers were forwarded to our Rochester office for distribution, and clients were notified about interim ways to contact their attorneys through direct correspondence and our website. Despite the shock and grief caused by the attack, our staff worked selflessly to get our New York City office up and running.
With our computer systems and emergency plans for handling client matters functioning well under the circumstances, we focused on how to recover client files and court documents lost in the collapse of the South Tower. Our goal was to minimize disruption of services. It was equally important to help everyone at Harris Beach cope with the tragedy by keeping busy and re-establishing a daily routine.
New technology was used to handle what had become a paperless office. In 2007, the ABA Journal interviewed our New York City partners about the aftermath of 9/11 and one of them noted, “We went paperless because we were paperless.” The technology installed on a firmwide level back then created a more family-friendly environment so that work could get done remotely when family matters were attended to during the normal hours of business. That environment exists today and is an integral part of our firm culture.
Following a year at the Fifth Avenue location, we opened an office on Third Avenue near 50th Street. Then in June 2007 we returned to Lower Manhattan at 100 Wall St., a 29-story office tower between Water and Front streets in the Financial District, about a 15-minute walk northeast from the former World Trade Center location. Several of our lawyers started their careers downtown, so for them, returning to the area was somewhat of a homecoming and also a tribute to all the victims of 9/11. To honor the memory of the employees we lost, we named the main conference room the World Trade Center Boardroom.
We remember the horror of 9/11 and its impact on our nation, but we also recognize those events brought out the best in our attorneys and staff and strengthened our firm.
James A. Spitz Jr. is CEO of Harris Beach PLLC.
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