The truth about veterinary contracts and what they don’t tell you in veterinary school.

Almost all veterinary schools impress the students on the fact that they need an Employment Agreement. This legal document should state your compensation, benefits, job description and other information. I’ve been a practice owner for over 35 years and I can tell you without a doubt that the most important item in the contract for the owner is the non-compete language. Why is this important to an owner? Simple, we have worked hard to attract clients and build a reputation that builds the business. The clientele don’t officially “belong” to anyone, but they “belong” more to the practice than the associates. True, we want our clients to bond with their doctors and be able to say “My vet is Dr. Wendy” but in reality, the owner has to have some means to prevent Dr. Wendy from opening up a practice in the same market and recruiting all the clients that came to the hospital and build her practice from her previous employer. Non-compete clauses therefore should have a reasonable time and distance stipulation that is enforceable. Ours is variable – meaning that since a new doctor will not have time to develop a following, our time and distance variables are fairly loose at first and become more restrictive with each successive year. Never are our non-compete clauses so restrictive so as to prevent someone from earning a living. If they were, there is a good chance that if challenged in a court of law, the entire non-compete clause could be ruled null and void. The time and distance variables will also vary according to the location of the practice. The general rule of thumb is the higher the population density (rural vs metropolitan) the more restrictive the distance variable.

Even though I am a practice owner, I’m also an advocate for the new perhaps naïve associate. At one time I had a veterinarian tell me that they would like to be considered for a position. They were in a totally different market, so there was no conflict. However, the practice owner threatened to sue her the amount of money that she would have been paid had she stayed in the practice. In other words, if her salary was $100,000 and she left with 6 months left in her contract, he tried to scare her from leaving by telling her she would have to pay him $50,000. Involuntary servitude was deemed illegal during the Abraham Lincoln administration following the Civil War! No one can force you to work in a place!

Here’s the reality: If you’re unhappy, (for whatever reason) and have discussed your grievances with your employer and made no progress, you should not stay. From an employer’s standpoint, we don’t want to employ an individual that is unhappy. From an employee’s standpoint, if you’re unhappy, disappointed or generally feel that the practice is not a good fit, it is in everyone’s best interest for you to move on – whether your contract is up or not. While the contract is a necessity, the true relationship between the owner and the associate is based on trust – not on what’s in the contract. If you’re unhappy, you should leave and be permitted to do so without any strings – or threats of retaliation. Life is short – get in a happy place.

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