Do I need a lawyer to review my dental employment contract?

If you’re simply signing a straightforward dental associate employment contract, do you need to involve a lawyer?

Remember, a contract exists to protect all parties’ interests and to ensure that no one is surprised down the road. Even a “straightforward” contract will often have clauses about compensation, benefits, non-competes, arbitration, malpractice insurance, non-solicitation, dispute resolution — the list goes on! That’s why it’s smart to engage a lawyer to help you review the contract, answer any questions, and ensure you are comfortable with what you’re signing.

A lawyer can also help you negotiate to go beyond what was initially offered.

See 3 Contract Issues That Got Expensive for examples of when associates (and owners) wished they had paid closer attention to what they were signing. What kind of attorney do I need?

Some attorneys practice as generalists, while some practice in more specialized fields of law. Just as you would not go to a podiatrist if you were having migraines, you would not go to an attorney specializing in antitrust matters to review an employment agreement. Thus, here you would ideally prefer an attorney who has some experience with employment law agreements in the health care arena, though the right generalist attorney (one who does not necessarily specialize in health care or in employment law) may, in some instances, be the right attorney for you.

Depending on the complexity of the circumstances and your situation, the generalist attorney who coaches your daughter’s soccer team or your old college roommate who is now a lawyer will in many instances be just fine.

Note that if you are purchasing a practice and its real estate, you should ensure your lawyer has experience with the intricacies of practice transitions and local real estate laws.

Where should I find an attorney?

Personal and professional referrals
A simple way to start your search is to ask friends, relatives, coworkers, or other members of your community for recommendations of lawyers with whom they have worked, especially if those people have had similar legal concerns to yours. Professionals with whom you have a business relationship can also be helpful. Keep in mind that even if a recommended lawyer does not specialize in employment or health care law, s/he might be able to direct you to another lawyer who does. Be careful, however, not to make your decision based solely on another person’s recommendation; the lawyer that is right for someone else might not be right for you.

Lawyer referral services. Your state or local bar association may have a lawyer referral service. The American Bar Association’s directory of lawyer referral services can be found here:

State dental association. Your state dental association might be able to recommend an attorney. For example, the New York State Dental Association provides an approved referral list of attorneys and law firms who specialize in dental matters:

The ADA offers a free downloadable resource for members titled A Dentist’s Guide to Selecting a Lawyer:

What should I ask a lawyer?

Where you do not have a pre-existing relationship with the attorney, you will likely want to meet and “interview” him or her before engaging them as your attorney. Many if not most attorneys will be willing to meet with you at no cost to discuss the possible engagement, but make sure to address the issue before the meeting takes place to avoid any possible misunderstanding. Depending on your comfort level, you may even conduct this interview by phone.

Ask about:

Fees. Be sure you know whether the attorney will be charging you on a flat fee basis or by the hour, and whether the fee includes other costs (such as photocopying and fax charges). You may wish to have a written engagement agreement with the attorney that details the engagement, including fees.

Be aware that some lawyers charge for an initial interview, or charge for an initial interview if you ultimately engage him or her. As previously noted, you should know ahead of time whether there will be a charge for this initial visit. The initial meeting with the does not mean you have committed to hire the attorney.

Practice record. Though online reviews can be misleading, there are several ways to check an attorney’s reputation online. One method is to check your state bar association’s website, which may provide information as to whether any complaints, misconduct charges, or malpractice accusations have been filed against the attorney.

Experience. For what is basically a contract review matter (although you may want additional help from the attorney if there are any negotiations), you may not always need the most experienced attorney. However, some experience in reviewing employment contracts specifically may reduce the amount of time the attorney needs to spend in review and might result in more nuanced recommendations. Personality. An attorney’s personality may be important to you in that you should feel comfortable in his/her presence and working with him/her. You may need to openly share private information so that he/she can effectively represent your interests to achieve the best outcome.

What should I do before I meet with a lawyer?

Advanced preparation will save you time (and potentially money). If both parties (employer and employee-dentist) can come to an agreement on key terms, you can bring those decisions to the lawyer to enshrine in your contract. That way, you can use your lawyer’s valuable time to simply confirm everything is captured accurately, rather than back-and-forth negotiating. (When you work with ADA Practice Transitions, you’ll receive an Associate Contracting Toolkit that guides both parties to discuss and decide on all the relevant terms. You can then hand the resulting worksheet directly to your lawyer.)

Organize your documents and questions ahead of your meeting and bring the following with you:

A written summary of the issues. For review of the employment agreement, this may be a summary of what you believe should be the terms of the agreement (what you have been orally promised), concerns that you have with the proposed agreement (e.g. with what is stated, or even omitted, from the proposed agreement), your future plans, and any other questions or concerns about the agreement or related to the employment generally.

All documents related to your matter. For review of an employment agreement, you would bring the proposed employment agreement.

Questions for your lawyer. You should also prepare some questions to ask the lawyer. You are essentially conducting a job interview. Some or all of the following may be helpful questions:

  • Are you experienced in this kind of matter?
  • Will you be the lawyer handling this matter, or will an associate be handling this?
  • How long do you estimate it will take to complete this matter?
  • What is your fee structure?

Finding a trusted advisor for your future

If you have found an attorney with whom you can work well and whom you trust, you have likely found a valuable business advisor on whom you can rely in the future to help with legal problems that may arise. This includes any problems that may be beyond that attorney’s expertise. A good attorney will advise you when a matter is beyond his/her (or the firm’s) area of expertise, and likely be able to recommend another attorney with that type of expertise.

For example, if you ever decide to purchase a practice, you will absolutely need a lawyer to help you navigate the complex process!

Thus, spending the time to carefully choose the right attorney to work with you on this matter may pay dividends beyond merely receiving sound advice concerning your employment agreement. Select carefully.

Learn more about negotiating and understanding dental employment agreements and contracts. Check out the full list of clauses and topics and download the ebook, which is full of sample language, examples and in-depth explanations.