The same is true when you buy a house. Your real estate agent reviews the terms of the deal with you: contingencies, down payment, critical time periods for obtaining financing and so on. But what about your employment contract? Who's helping you wade through those terms?
Spring is approaching—it's the time of year when many associate veterinarians and veterinary students are considering new jobs. This is without question the busiest contract review season of the year in the industry. For those of you out there who have narrowed down your list of job opportunities and are preparing to make a final decision, it's time to carefully consider the contents of employment contracts. These documents, which are usually presented by potential employers, contain the terms the two parties have verbally negotiated during one or more interviews—or, in the case of working practitioners, during performance reviews. During this process, you must decide whether you'll sign the employment agreement proposed by your new or current boss without modification or, alternatively, have an attorney or consultant review the agreement.
Assuming that car loans and real estate contracts are important enough to justify having an expert explain the key points of the agreement and entertain all the questions you might have, why would you sign an employment contract without obtaining similar guidance? After all, an employment contract involves money and benefits worth far more than a new car. And when you buy a new house, you aren't promising to move at least 10 miles away for at least two years if you no longer want to live there.
Veterinary employment contracts are complicated. They call for numerous promises and place major personal obligations on the prospective employee. It just makes sense to have a professional look over the document before you sign on the dotted line.
As veterinary employers have become more sophisticated in terms of hiring employees, they have become more knowledgeable about clauses they should place in contracts. For example, many of the veterinary employment agreements I review contain language stating that by signing the contract, the associate certifies that he or she has been encouraged to or has actually obtained a legal review of the document. What this means is that the associate waives, in writing, any claim that he or she didn't have a chance to get professional guidance on the terms of the agreement. It's tough to make a persuasive argument in court that the associate didn't understand the binding nature of the noncompete agreement if he or she signed a statement advising him or her to obtain legal advice prior to signing the deal.
One of the points a veterinary contract expert may bring to your attention during a consultation is that the contract you sign today may affect you more in the years to come than it does now. In my law practice I often see a scenario in which a recent graduate moves to a new city to take a job in hopes of developing an interesting career in that new city. After signing a contract containing a substantial noncompete clause, the newly minted doctor works for several years, gets married and sets down roots in the community. But then a new and exciting job opportunity comes along at the same time that the ownership/management/staff situation changes at the current workplace. The now-experienced practitioner looks over her old employment contract and sadly discovers that she can't take advantage of the new local opportunity.
And it only gets worse. The original contract has an assignability clause providing that any new practice owner can enforce the noncompete clause. Therefore, even though the associate might have convinced her original boss to waive some of the time or distance in the noncompete, the new corporate owner has a reputation for not reducing those limitations. So what's the result? The veterinarian is ultimately stuck. She doesn't want to move, she doesn't want to stay at the current job and she can't afford to litigate the issue of the noncompete clause against the much deeper pockets of the large veterinary corporation that has purchased her old contract.
Brief isn't always better
Finally, many veterinarians think that if their employment contract is brief, outlining just the main points of the job, compensation and benefits, that it's less likely to need a professional review. That's not the case.
When employers write contracts in an overly simplistic way, important issues generally tend to fall through the cracks. Then, later in the employment relationship, tension develops over things like health coverage, 401(k) match amount, timing of vacation and so on—headaches for everyone.
Bottom line? Spare yourself the pain and have a professional review the contract on your behalf before you sign anything. You won't regret it.
Dr. Christopher Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law PC, which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians.
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