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
Check out the ADA’s great guide to contract terms, Employment Agreements: The Devil’s in the Details.
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! If your contract contains a restrictive covenant or non-compete clause, make sure you can live with it.
For example, a ten-mile clause might be completely reasonable in a rural or exurban area where practices are farther apart and patients are willing to drive a bit. However, that same ten-mile radius could be impossible in a busy urban area where a two-mile radius might be more reasonable.
Owners often drop a “standard” clause into contracts, so if something’s too restrictive, counter with something more realistic. (Read more about negotiating a fair restrictive covenant — or about eliminating them altogether.)
Do I really need a contract?
Yes! Even if you plan to work with a parent, family friend, or your Great Aunt Susie, you still need to discuss contract terms and work through the details. Doing so will protect both of you and strengthen your professional relationship by prompting you to have an honest discussion about your expectations.
If you’re lucky and things go exactly as planned, your contract will sit in a drawer and you’ll only be out the lawyer’s fees. But if something should happen, you’ll be thankful you documented your intentions and terms. (See how contracts could have improved two family business scenarios.)
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. See our guide to the 8 things you should ask.
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.
Then, the fall of your D4 year is perfect timing to create a free ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT) profile, as it gives you plenty of time to be matched with the right practice for your goals. (And note that if ADAPT helps you find your first associateship, you’ll pay $0 for the service if you’re an ADA member. Check out our Pricing.)
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 the career you’ve always dreamed of, and create a free ADA Practice Transitions profile to get started. Not quite ready? Subscribe to our blog to get the latest advice on charting your dental career path.