Do I Need an Attorney?

Equine veterinarians should think about the answer to this question before the need arises.

It is important to accept that legal help is simply a cost of doing business that often saves you money and helps your practice prosper in the long run. iStock/yavdat

As a business owner, chances are you have an accountant, an insurance agent and maybe even a business consultant to advise you. But what about an attorney? Most veterinary practice owners only hire an attorney when confronted with a serious legal problem (e.g., a lawsuit filed by a client or employee). The perception that attorneys charge high rates prevents many veterinarians from seeking valuable advice that could prevent legal trouble.

It is important to accept that legal help is simply a cost of doing business that often saves you money and helps your practice prosper in the long run.

Like most professionals, attorneys typically charge at least $200 per hour, and because (like veterinarians) they are selling their time and expertise, they invoice based on the number of minutes or hours spent on your work. When an attorney’s staff members are involved, it is common to be charged a lower rate per hour for their time. Typically, you will also be responsible for materials, photocopying and the shipping costs of documents.

Some tasks related to starting or managing a veterinary practice are fairly straightforward and/or not unduly difficult to learn, and might not require the services of an attorney. But if you can earn more income utilizing your time to provide veterinary services than you would spend using a professional, the arithmetic clearly points to enlisting an experienced legal professional.

Tasks that you could consider taking on yourself when opening a new practice include researching and choosing a name; reserving a domain name for your website; applying for an employer identification number (EIN); and applying for licenses and permits required in your state. It is best to utilize an attorney’s and/or an accountant’s advice in choosing a legal structure for a new business, and an attorney for creating a legal partnership agreement, a limited liability company (LLC) operating agreement or a shareholder’s agreement.

In existing practices, an attorney is recommended for writing the initial employment agreements with associates, after which you might feel comfortable utilizing your first as a template for all that follow. Regular review of any partnership, LLC or shareholder’s agreement under which you are currently operating, and creating a buy-sell agreement with partners, are both important functions of a practice attorney.

Already having a trusted relationship with a legal professional will be very helpful if a former, current or prospective employee files suit on the grounds of discrimination in hiring, unlawful termination or a hostile work environment. Likewise, it is important to have legal representation that knows you and your business if you receive notice that a local, state or federal government entity is investigating your or your business for violation of any laws.

If you are negotiating the sale of part or all of your practice or investigating the acquisition of another veterinary firm or its assets, you will want to involve an experienced attorney.

Prevention of legal trouble should be your emphasis. Consulting with an attorney about your policies and procedures through a review of your employee handbook is recommended, because by the time your practice is sued, the only question that remains is how much you’ll be paying in attorney’s fees, court fees and damages.

By educating yourself in business management, human resources and regulatory compliance, you can minimize your risk. An attorney can help you stay in compliance with the law and spot developing legal issues before they might become problems.

The attorney that you choose for your practice should be well-versed in business and employment law. In small, rural areas, you might find that available attorneys have a fairly general practice, primarily writing wills and performing real estate transactions. In that case, finding a legal professional with more specific expertise might be to your advantage. Most importantly, you should have a high level of trust in your attorney, be able to communicate easily and be afforded a prompt comprehensive reply to any concerns you raise.

Adding an attorney to the group of professionals who are on your practice’s support team is an important way to safeguard your business’s future. 

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