Read Beyond the Dollar Amount: How to Get the Contract You Deserve

An illustration of three people at a meeting

Dentistry is a relationship-based business. That’s why it’s important to consider the contract as the first step in building a relationship with your new colleague. Whether you’re coming in as an associate or doing the hiring, the contract process should be conversational — not one-sided.

Dentists are notoriously non-confrontational, but this is not the time to stay quiet. Instead, think about what’s most important to you and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Everything’s negotiable. It’s better to ask and make your desires known than to wish you had broached the subject.

I recently joined Matt and Landon from the Smart Dental Student Podcast to discuss how to approach a dental associate contract. Listen to that episode or read on for my takeaways.


What are the steps to a successful contract?

Would-be associates often simply skim a proposed contract until they reach the dollar amount — and look no further. They assume that all the legalese is “standard” and that if they’re happy with that one big number, that’s all that matters.

Too often, they realize much later that a clause in the contract actually limits their pay, their personal time, or even their career growth.

To ensure you get the contract you deserve:

  • Read the whole thing
  • Seek to understand it (with the help of a lawyer)
  • Negotiate what’s most important
  • Sign it

What’s negotiable in my dental contract? 

In short, everything! It never hurts to ask, particularly if it’s something that has less monetary impact, such as schedule flexibility or time off for CE.

Depending on where you are looking, associates may have a bit more leverage right now — this is especially true in rural areas. But it’s important to be realistic and to think about your requests from the practice owner’s perspective. What’s reasonable, for both of you? What are you willing to compromise to get what you want?

Download the free ADAPT ebook, What You Need to Know Before Signing That Contract.

Step 1: Figure out your priorities

Everyone’s priorities are different — and they’ll change over time. Sit down and think through what’s most important right now and how that may evolve in the next couple of years. For example, if you want to:

  • Learn a new skillset, negotiate for a larger CE allowance 
  • Coach your child’s soccer team, negotiate for schedule flexibility
  • Participate in organized dentistry or charitable work, negotiate for time off or to use the office space/equipment   
  • Use a certain lab or material, spell it out in the contract
  • Buy out the practice when the owner retires in 2-3 years, negotiate the terms now and put everything in writing

Thinking about this ahead of time can help you negotiate the things that will help you reach your goal.

Step 2: Understand how you’re being paid

There’s a huge difference between being paid on production, adjusted production, or collections! Make sure you understand how you’ll be paid and what it means for your bottom line. For example, if you’re being paid 35% of collections, ask:

  • What’s the collections rate?
  • Who’s responsible for collecting the money?
  • Would I be better off if I was paid 33% of production? And if so — is that based on the fee schedule or any discounts?

See how to think through the numbers yourself.

Step 3: Review any restrictive covenant or non-compete clauses

Don’t limit your options for your next job before starting your first job! Historically, noncompete clauses have been included in many associate contracts with the intent to protect the employer’s business by disallowing the associate from providing dental services in a surrounding area for a specified length of time. On April 23, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission issued a final rule banning noncompete clauses nationwide. Once it goes into effect, the final rule applies to noncompetes entered into after the effective date and some noncompetes currently in existence. Every dentist should consult a lawyer about any existing or new noncompete clause as it may still be enforceable. Read more about the ruling on ADA News.

My friend/cousin/neighbor’s best friend is a lawyer — can I just use them?

Look for a lawyer who has worked on dental contracts in your state. State laws vary tremendously, so it’s important that your attorney knows the particulars! And you want someone who has experience with the intricacies of the business of dentistry, particularly in helping you understand how you’ll be paid.

Talk to colleagues or your state/local component for referrals, and see the ADA's advice on finding a lawyer to review your employment contract.

Isn’t it rude to ask lots of questions?

Owners want associates who will ask good questions. It shows that you pay attention to the details and that you’re invested in learning about this particular practice.

Don’t be shy about asking questions during the interview and negotiation process. Remember, you and the practice owner both want the same thing: a good fit who will be right for the practice’s patients.

When should I start all this?

Your D3 year is the ideal time to start putting serious thought into the type of dentistry you want to practice. Talk to recent alums about their experiences. See if you can shadow in a few practices of different types or sizes. Review sample Practice Profiles to see what types of practices sound most enticing. All this background work can help you shape your vision.

Remember, a contract should help you build a relationship with your new colleague. And if you’ve identified the right fit — someone who shares your dental vision and values — negotiations should only strengthen your relationship and desire to work together.

Check out our Student Resource Center to access the resources you need for your dream career.