The Role of a Lawyer for a Veterinary Practice
Edward J. Guiducci, J.D.

Society has changed from being reliant upon a handshake and a person’s word to a complicated system that frequently ends in litigation    Veterinarians cannot help but consider the legal effects of everything that they do.  The effect of this is that doctors sometimes find themselves overly conscious of the fact that any time they act, they are subject to legal scrutiny and that they can and frequently will be held accountable for their actions whether they understood that they were acting inappropriately or not.

As society has changed, so too has the role of the lawyer.  Gone are the days of the attorney that provides all services for all clients.  With the change in society, combined with the onset of the high technology and the information superhighway, lawyers have also specialized their services.

How does a veterinarian select a lawyer?
Selecting a lawyer is not much different from choosing the right professional to assist you with other needs that you might have.  Your goal should be to find the lawyer with the best qualifications, experience and knowledge to meet your legal needs.  Many lawyers concentrate their practices in specialized areas.  Just as you would not consult with a neurosurgeon to treat your foot injury, you should not select a lawyer that is not qualified to handle your legal needs.  Your objective should be to find a lawyer with the most experience for the type of problem that you have. 

How do you find out about a lawyer’s qualifications and experience?
The simple answer is that you ask.  You are making an important business decision when you hire a lawyer for your veterinary practice.  A veterinarian will have many specific legal needs in operating his or her practice.  These legal needs will vary depending upon a person’s individual situation.   However, at some point in time virtually every veterinary practice will need a lawyer for some of the following: the formation of the legal practice entity; agreements between the owners, employer-employee legal issues, including associate veterinarian contract issues, general vender contract issues, associate buy-in issues, tax issues, real estate issues, litigation, veterinary board grievance defense, etc.  You would not buy a car without driving it or asking friends about their experiences with similar cars.  You would not hire a builder without asking for references.  It is also appropriate to ask a lawyer about specific experience with your type of problem.  You have every right to know that your attorney is qualified to handle your specific legal matter.  You simply need to ask.

After hiring your lawyer, you must understand your relationship.
Many veterinarians believe that once they have hired a lawyer, the lawyer will do everything necessary to handle their legal matter.  In reality, hiring a lawyer is just the first step in creating a team.  Sometimes your legal team will consist of just you and your lawyer.  However, in most instances the team will include your tax adviser, insurance agent, lender.  But no matter how many people are on the team, each member, including you, has certain responsibilities to fulfill in order to ensure that your legal matter will be handled smoothly and successfully.

What will the lawyer be responsible for?
The lawyer will be expected to use his or her specialized legal knowledge and skill to advise you on the different options or courses of action available to you and the possible consequences of each option so that you can make the best decisions about how your legal matter should proceed.  The lawyer should not be expected to make business decisions about your issue – that is your responsibility.

In some instances the lawyer will use his or her independent judgment about what to do and will not necessarily ask for your input or advise.  An example of this is the drafting of contract language that is designed to protect your interests after you have made a decision as to a direction to proceed.  This is different from an issue where there is more than one approach to take.  One of the primary obligations of your lawyer is to consider how your interests are protected in the worst-case scenario and draft agreements to protect your interests in the event that this scenario occurs.

The lawyer should clearly explain how he or she will charge you for the legal services, how you will be billed and when the bill will be due.  This should be confirmed in a letter or with a law firm fee agreement. 

What will you be responsible for?
Your lawyer will expect you to be truthful and complete about the facts of your situation.  Holding back information can prevent the lawyer from giving you the best advise.

If you are consulting your lawyer about a contract transaction i.e. an associate buy in, you lawyer will want you to have consult with him or her before you agree on key terms of the agreement.  A buyer or seller of a practice may distrust a veterinarian that verbally agrees to key terms and then refuses to honor them after speaking to their lawyer.  It is all right to generally speak about terms of an agreement but do not commit to anything until you speak to your lawyer.

Your lawyer may also ask you to assist by locating documents and if it is a litigation matter, to locate people that are important in your case.  Of course, any other assistance that you can provide such as organizing documents and other similar services that your lawyer has indicated need to be done will reduce the fees and costs that you would otherwise have to pay the lawyer.

  • Your lawyer will expect you to make reasonable adjustments to your schedule to meet with him or her.

  • Your lawyer will expect you to pay your bills promptly, both for legal fees and costs advanced.

  • This list is not exhaustive and your job on your legal team will depend on the nature of your legal matter and the expectations of your particular lawyer. 

How will I know what my lawyer expects of me?
At one of your initial meetings with your lawyer, plan to discuss and reach an agreement about the following:

  • Your goals and what you want accomplished.  This is very important to your legal matter and after learning the relevant facts your attorney should be giving you options or courses of conduct regarding your legal matter or indicate that once certain information is obtained that he or she will be able to give you options to achieve your individual goals.

  • Your decisions on how to proceed if the lawyer has the relevant information to give you options
    at that time.

  • How fees and costs will be charged and how you will be expected to pay them.

  • Who else in the lawyer’s office will in involved i.e. other lawyers, paralegals etc.

  • Who else on the legal team will be involved i.e. accountant etc.

  • How the lawyer will keep you informed about developments in your case i.e. telephone, letter etc.

  • What is the office policy about returning your telephone calls, letters etc?

What if the lawyer won’t discuss his or her policies?
It is a good idea to interview several lawyers before making a decision on whom to hire.  Don’t hire a lawyer who will not discuss how he or she works or one who expects to handle your matters in a way that you are uncomfortable with.  But if several lawyers tell you the same thing, chances are that you may have to adjust your expectations.

Once you have hired a lawyer to work on a legal matter for you, you are entitled to be kept informed about what is going on.  You have the right to information about the work that is being done and the progress of your matter.

What do I need to do to have a successful lawyer/client team?
The answer to this is a simple and straightforward….

Be sure that you and your lawyer clearly understand what your goals are. 

After clarifying what your goals are, it is important that you have clearly considered the options that your attorney has offered to you and made a firm decision on how to proceed.  This doesn’t mean that events won’t cause you to reevaluate your position but you need to have made a decision in order to give your lawyer a clear direction to proceed.

Be sure that you understand and are comfortable with the lawyer’s working style.  Be especially certain that you have a clear picture of the expected timetable of your case when you can expect your lawyer to complete certain tasks and when and how often the lawyer intends to contact you.

Be sure that you provide the lawyer with the information and documents necessary to understand your case and that you respond to his or her requests within a reasonable period of time.

Be sure that you understand and agree with the lawyer’s billing practices.

Be sure that if you have questions or concerns that you express them to your lawyer and listen to the responses.

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