If you are transitioning your dental practice with the intent to retire from dentistry, you might ask yourself, “if I don’t intend to work as a dentist, why would I sign non-compete agreement when I sell my dental practice?” It may seem unnecessary to you. To the buyer doctor, however, this document is extremely important. In this post, we’ll discuss a little about what these agreements are and why they matter.
Before we get started, however, please understand that the issues surrounding these agreements are legal matters and you need a qualified attorney to counsel you regarding the reasonableness and enforceability of non-competes in your state. This post is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied on for legal advice.
What is a Non-Compete Agreement?
A non-compete agreement is a contract in which one party agrees to not compete with another party in their area of business within a defined geographical area and for a certain length of time. A non-compete agreement may include non-solicitation provisions which prohibits one party from soliciting customers away from another party.
In dentistry, these agreements come up in three basic scenarios:
- When Hiring an Dental Associate: the dental associate will likely be asked to sign a non-compete agreement that covers the period after the associate leaves the practice. It would protect the practice by prohibiting the former dental associate from competing directly with the practice or using information from patient files to lure patients away.
- When Entering into a Dental Partnership: similar to the dental associate scenario, the agreement covers the period after a partner leaves, to protect the practice.
- When Selling a Dental Practice: Again, the agreement is to protect the practice. But, here, the doctor being protected is the buyer—the new doctor. The agreement prohibits the seller from practicing within a certain area for a certain length of time, thereby increasing the chance that the practice’s existing patient base remains with the practice, even after the departure of the long-time owner.
In most states, these agreements are enforceable (California is one notable exception). This means that, especially with regard to dental associates or when you decide “it’s time to sell my dental practice,” a non-compete agreement will likely be a non-negotiable part of the deal. And, in fairness, they are a good idea for whichever doctor is left in the dental practice.
For the buyer of a dental practice, it’s important to be assured that the selling doctor is not going to pocket the money, open a practice across the street, and take all of the patients with them. Also, if the selling doctor is going into retirement, that’s uncharted territory for the seller. What if after a few months or a year or so the seller decides they don’t really like being retired? The buyer wants a guarantee that they will have time to establish themselves in the practice and earn the trust of the patients and staff before having to compete with the seller.
Reasonableness of the Terms
A key to the enforceability of the agreements is whether the terms are reasonable. What does that mean? Well, it depends. It depends on the state law governing the agreement and it depends on the location of the practice. Again, you will need a qualified local attorney to advise you on these issues.
There are two main points on which the agreement must be reasonable: the scope of the geographical area being restricted and how long the restriction will be in place. For the length of time, two to three years is a common duration, although it may be up to five. For the geographical area, it will largely depend on where your practice is located. For instance, in a dense metropolitan area, such as New York City, the area may be small, defined in city blocks. However, in rural Texas, a dental practice for sale might be the only one in a 50-mile radius.
One guide to determining a reasonable geographic area is, before you think “it’s time to sell my dental practice,” consider where your patients live. The area that you draw patients from can be quantified as the area in which about 80% of your patients live. That way you capture the bulk of your patients without chasing the outliers that might make the area too broad and, therefore, unenforceable.
A word on the enforceability of unreasonable restrictions. Some employers or buyers of dental practices might purposefully try and see what they can get away with in terms of overly broad restrictions. This is a bad practice for both parties as it relates to the agreement. Overly broad terms may have the effect of invalidating other parts of the contract which are related—so if you are the one asking for the non-compete, don’t push your luck by asking for too much. If you are the party being restricted, sometimes courts will take the approach that you knew what you were getting into when you signed. Don’t take the risk. Plus, do you really want to be contractually obligated to a party that is trying to get something from you unfairly? In that situation, it’s probably better to walk away.
Other Considerations for the Terms of the Non-Compete Agreement
- What circumstances will negate the agreement? If the practice ceases operations, is sold to another dentist, or moves location, you should consider how these factors will impact the agreement. For instance, if the practice closes, maybe the agreement should no longer be enforceable. If the practice moves, it should probably depend on where it moves, and how far that is from the original location (e.g., whether it changes the geographical area from which the practice draws the majority of its patients). If the practice is sold, there will likely be a non-compete between the parties to that sale. That would be a situation you’d want to discuss with your attorney.
- Does it cover going to work for an existing competing dentist? This is mostly applicable to former dental associates or partners, although it could arise in the sale of a dental practice. Even if the change in employment is not advertised and no one is stealing patients, it’s still possible, especially in a small town, that people will learn of the change and that could draw patients away. This is something you should consider and discuss with your attorney and dental practice transition specialist. If you are dealing with a partner or employee leaving the practice, they may be leaving because they are unhappy in the practice, a factor to be carefully considered.
- Are staff covered by the non-compete agreement? Do you want to prohibit the other party’s ability to hire your staff away from you? Will you state laws allow you to do anything about it proactively?
- If partners are splitting a practice, how do you divide the resources? Who keeps the patients? Who gets the referral sources? These factors must be decided before you can move forward with any further restrictive agreements.
You Need a Trustworthy Specialist when it’s Time to “Sell My Dental Practice”
At DDSmatch Southwest, we are expert dental transition specialists who draw on the experience of hundreds of dental practice transitions from across the country to assist and advise our clients with their dental practice transitions in Texas and New Mexico. One of our satisfied clients said one thing he especially appreciated about the dental transition specialist that handled the sale of his dental practice was that
“Your issues were his issues . . . the thing that was amazing with me was that I absolutely knew nothing, but absolutely had an amazing experience, and that’s because Andy took good care of me. . . . He’s a good guy. He looks out for his clientele.”
You can read more about that client’s experience on our Dental Transitions Blog.
Whether you think “it’s time to sell my Texas dental practice” or whether you think that time is still a few years down the road, it’s not too early to find out what DDSmatch can do to help you meet your dental transition goals. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.