Don’t hire a lawyer to review your physician employment contract

Last updated Jan 7, 2021 | Published on Nov 30, 2020

For your Independent Physician Contract Agreement, visit Physician contract review. You’ve probably heard or read advice that you should hire a lawyer to review an employment contract before you sign it. This advice may have come directly from a lawyer or from a physician friend or colleague. Physician contract review is a lot like insurance, financial advising, and mortgages in that attempts are made to convince us that we are somehow special. And that, because of our profession, we require physician-specific services that go above and beyond those needed by “average” people. We are targeted because we are (or—for those finishing up residency—will soon be), high income earners who are only savvy about medicine and are willing to shell out some cash. 

The TL;DR for this post is: You don’t need a lawyer to review your employment contract. There are significant benefits to doing it yourself. The disadvantages to hiring someone to do it for you go beyond the fee you’ll have to pay. There are even a few risks (albeit fairly minor ones) of hiring a lawyer for this task. 

Below, I cover several reasons that physician contract review can be successfully completed by you, the physician.  

Employment contract language is confusing, but the concepts aren’t 

The moment you first open the contract sent by the employer can be a stressful. It’s a daunting document that’s probably 10 pages long and full of numbered sections, formal language, and perhaps Exhibits A and B. 

When you take the time to actually read it, you’ll find that it is understandable. There may be a section or two (or three or four) that don’t make immediate sense, but you can probably wrap your head around them after another read-through. 

In a way, an employment contract is like a SOAP note. SOAP notes are bread and butter to us as doctors. For a lay person, it might take some time and effort to understand the different sections. A lay person will probably have to look up a few medical terms, but it certainly is feasible for him to read and comprehend the SOAP note. 

I hired a lawyer to review my first physician employment contract. I found that I had to take a lot of time to learn about employment contracts just to adequately understand the suggestions and edits my lawyer made. I didn’t want to blindly follow his recommendations. Assuming you don’t want to blindly follow a lawyer’s recommendations, either, hiring one to review your contract probably won’t save you any time. 

Your career will thank you for learning how to review an employment contract 

Your first job after residency almost certainly won’t be your last one. You’re going to have a few – or maybe a lot – of employment contracts to review over the course of your career. By gaining confidence on contract review from the start, you’ll do your future self a favor. 

Moreover, if you do (or plan to do) any freelance, consulting, or side gig work, you’re bound to have many more contracts to review. These have significant differences from employment contracts, though there are enough similarities that having some experience in reviewing your own employment contracts is likely to impart a level of comfort when it comes to independent contractor agreements

You need to know what you’re asking for and negotiating 

The result of having a lawyer review your physician employment contract will be this: a draft document full of red lines, comments, and suggested changes. You either need to ask your employer to make these changes, or you need to accept the terms in the way they were originally written. The latter is essentially going against your lawyer’s advice. Assuming you opt for the former, your “asks” of your new employer will be much more compelling if you fully understand why you’re requesting a change to the contract and exactly what change you’re asking for. 

You also need to be confident in whether or not you’ll move forward in signing the contract if the employer says no to your request for any of the changes. The best way to gain this confidence is to fully grasp the terms of the contract. 

Understanding your contract helps you understand the company you’re working for 

In many cases, an employment contract is a reflection of the company that wrote the contract. Doing a full review of the control on your own is likely to give you some insight into the organization’s culture and their expectations of employees. 

For example, a contract that goes into great detail about employee conduct outside of the workplace either: 

  1. Cares deeply about their public image, or 
  2. Has dealt with multiple employees acting like fools when they’re off the clock. 

Or both.

Seeing this type of language in your contract might prompt you to do a once-over of your social media profiles to check that they are devoid or anything unprofessional or controversial. 

By taking the time to fully understand your employment contract, you can potentially be a better employee for your company. 

A lawyer’s interests don’t completely align with your own 

Any lawyer you hire to review your employment contract will review it with your best interests in mind, to the extent possible. But, by virtue of the lawyer being a third-party, his interests come into play, as well.  

You’re paying the lawyer (probably a hefty sum). So, even if the contract is favorable to you as written, the lawyer may feel obligated to point out something in exchange for his fee. This can lead to contract language wordsmithing and nit-picking

This happened to me the one time that I hired a lawyer for an employment contract review. It was a fair and well-written contract to begin with (though I didn’t realize this at the time). My lawyer suggested a lot of changes. Most of them were simple wording changes that, looking back, I don’t think would have actually made a difference if a disagreement or lawsuit arisen regarding my employment. 

Additionally, the lawyer you hire is probably unfamiliar with your potential employer, unless it’s a large, well-known company. Even as a prospective employee, you have at least some sense of the company’s culture and priorities for your application and interview process. This can help you in reviewing your contract, which is something a lawyer can’t offer. 

A few times you should consider hiring a lawyer for physician contract review 

I’ve provided several reasons that I generally suggest physicians review their own employment contracts. But there are a few scenarios in which it may be wise to hire some help: 

  • When there’s a lot on the line. You may want to consider involving a lawyer if your job offer is for a high-level position. A lot of money and your professional image may be on the line. 
  • When the organizational structure is atypical. If the company you’ll be working for or the contract itself is very out of the ordinary, it might be a good idea to hire some help. For example, a startup company who seems to be following nobody’s rules but their own, or a company in a brand new space or offering the first service of its kind. A lawyer will have a better idea of what is “normal” and acceptable in a contract than you. 
  • When there are parts of the contract that you truly don’t understand after putting in your best effort to understand them. A lawyer can help with this. In this case, you can probably save yourself some money by just buying an hour of the lawyer’s time to ask about a specific clause, rather than having them review the entire contract. 
  • If you truly don’t have the time or the desire to give your contract the attention it deserves, you should hire a lawyer to review it. This is a better option than blindly signing a legal document. 

Your own situation is unique. The company hiring you may have certain complicating factors or nuances. The contract you’re asked to sign might have some odd or confusing clauses. Depending on you, the company, and the contract, it might make sense to hire a lawyer. Use your judgement in doing the right thing for yourself. 

Wish you had an employment contract in your hands? Start the process of getting one by taking a look at the unique clinical and non-clinical opportunities on our job board.

6 Comments

  1. Lisa Unruh M.D.

    Ummmm, Yeah Right.
    I’m going to stick with my personal attorney who has stuck by me, Beyond blind allegiance, she has pointed out various, precarious lines in contracts that were detrimental to my interests if I signed. The medical world is a litigious world, so recommend safeguarding your rights in righting.

    L.Unruh M.D.

  2. James L. Riley, MD, JD

    1. Study your anticipated employment contract, and do your best to understand it.

    2. Especially if it is your first contract, hire a lawyer. The right lawyer will know if the expectations are standard or unusual. After the first one, you may be fine on your own.

  3. Carolee Marie Cutler Peck

    Agree. After paying a hefty sum for my first contract negotiation and then realizing that the lawyer really didn’t know what was in my best interest – and then after paying a lawyer to go over my most recent separation agreement in which I listed 17 things to add/change on the contract and he only added 1… basically, for now on, I just do it myself. I know more than the lawyers do.

  4. Frank M Reed

    I see the contract review situation as a both/and. It is important to understand what is in the contract and to be alerted to vague, often disguised technical issues (such as non-competes without legal standing or clear articulation of consequences). Another resource might be a trusted physician colleague with contracting experience such as the head of a non-affiliated medical group. I have dealt with many docs, especially younger ones, who have gotten stuck in contracts they didn’t understand in spite of thinking they did. I remind docs that perhaps the most important application of the contract is to resolve issues when things don’t go well.

  5. Steven Nelson MD JD

    All of the anecdotal comments about how a lawyer didn’t help are instructive. If you had a difficult diagnosis issue you would choose someone who is very knowledgeable in the appropriate area. Same goes for lawyers. You pick one who has extensive experience in healthcare contracts. They don’t spend a lot of time reviewing simple stuff, but can spot the sticky areas. So it’s not to not get an attorney, it’s get the right attorney. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study to understand it. I have had dozens of friends that avoided disaster by having an experienced attorney review a potential contract.

  6. Matt Lyman DO

    There are also non lawyers who specialize in physician contracts that will pull mgma data and help you get what your worth. An attorney isn’t going to help you get that.

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