For love or money; the decisions can be tough


Ever hear that expression, "I wouldn't do that for love or money?" I suppose that what the expression really means is that "I wouldn't do that for anything." The logical inference is that if there is no emotional or economic motivation, there isn't any motivation at all. In the law, and in the veterinary workplace, the truth of this inference plays out each and every day.

Ever hear that expression, "I wouldn't do that for love or money?" I suppose that what the expression really means is that "I wouldn't do that for anything." The logical inference is that if there is no emotional or economic motivation, there isn't any motivation at all. In the law, and in the veterinary workplace, the truth of this inference plays out each and every day.

Many people work at their jobs because they desperately need the money to survive. On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are financially set, but get out of bed every day because they get emotional gratification from their co-workers, the chance to improve an idea or the lives of others or simply because they like doing what they do. (Bill Gates and Bill Cosby probably don't show up at the office for the paycheck.) For people in those two categories, it probably isn't of vital importance that they try to carefully assess their co-workers and their co-workers' agendas.

For the rest of us, including most veterinarians, our work life is a trade-off. We must frequently choose between "love and money" and the decisions involved can be pretty tough. Consider the new veterinary graduate who is selecting a job. She can go to work at a small private practice in her hometown where she knows everybody and they all think she's phenomenally educated. On the other hand, she can go to a huge city practice where the pay is terrific but the personalities may be condescending to a slow new graduate.

Or how about the 40-year-old associate who would really love to make more money? He's got a wife and two kids and really could stand to bring in more dough. On the other hand, he looks at the owner of the practice where he works and sees all the extra time (away from family) involved in operating the practice. Is it worth it? Is the timing right? Should he forego family life for the extra economic rewards of ownership?

The same love-or-money question arises between partners. It would be nice if one person could accomplish as much as two in a veterinary practice, but he can't. A partner can make it so there is always someone minding the store; so that employees always have a sounding board and clients feel more secure knowing that there is always someone to turn to. On the other hand, partners sometimes dump cases on each other, sometimes they steal money from each other. Sometimes partners start out getting along great, but end up hating each other. By having failed to fully analyze the personalities involved, such partners participate in the money of a busy partnership but end up with resentment instead of love.

I have written this series of articles to try to help veterinarians avoid what is all to commonly seen in the practice of veterinary law - legal problems resulting from poor judgment (analysis) by one veterinary professional concerning the nature and personality of another individual. What are some of the common situations where this failure manifests itself? You may see yourself or someone you know in this list:

  • Associates who have signed employment agreements with outrageous terms because they incorrectly assessed their employer's motives.

  • Associates who have failed to get anything in writing but who (reasonably or unreasonably) expect a buy-in offer that never materializes.

  • A practitioners who is sued for malpractice by an owner whose vindictiveness was recognized too late.

  • Practice owners who relied on unsubstantiated promises concerning the economic health of a practice only to find buying the practice was a huge mistake.

  • A veterinarian whose personality disputes with key non-doctor co-workers unexpectedly places her own job at risk.

  • Partners who begin working together on a handshake and become mortal enemies because of some intervening event (dishonesty, illness, divorce, alcoholism, gambling addiction).

  • Multiple shareholders in an emergency clinic who, when time comes to sell, each have an entirely different idea of what the others should receive for their ownership shares.

  • Veterinarians who confuse a client's ability to pay with their desire to pay and extend credit well beyond reality.

The problems mentioned rarely occur as a result of "bad luck" which is how many veterinarians tend to describe their path to such disputes. Much more commonly, though, the origin is poor judgment; perhaps more accurately, lazy judgment. What exactly is lazy judgment of another person?

Analogize the work and business worlds to a diagnostic protocol. How many times have we found fault with another veterinarian for having done slipshod work in developing a medical case? A veterinarian often looks at the medical record on a second opinion and thinks, "Wow, if the previous veterinarian had simply spent more time and thought harder about the problem, the correct diagnosis could have been made and proper treatment instituted earlier."

Business relationships - those between veterinarian professionals and colleagues, employees, employers, lay co-workers and clients - are every bit as complex as medical puzzles. And they deserve the same deep, probing analysis. It is almost always a mistake to accept the statements and actions of others at face value. Many people are more earnest and sensible than they appear outwardly; one must look past the bluster and consider a person's past actions and relationships to find out what they are really about. Alternatively, the world is full of smooth operators who smile and shake hands while quietly carrying out an agenda entirely contrary to the surface appearance.

It is a certainty that very few people, veterinarians or otherwise, can distinguish between the real persona and the image without careful observation and time spent "working the problem." When a person makes a financial investment, they are obligated to do adequate "due diligence" to uncover all that can be known about the nature of the investment. Is it sensible to think that our analysis of those with or for whom we work should be any less rigorous?

If we assume, then, that it is a mistake to enter into employment agreements, partnership agreements or even telephone service agreements without carefully appraising the persons and personalities involved, what do we do when the thorough assessment is complete? That is the point at which legal issues are raised and legal decisions need to be made.

Consider this example:

Chet the vet has been an associate at Quality Veterinary Hospital for six years. He has been trying to decide whether he eventually wants to own a practice himself, partner with another veterinarian or remain as a well-paid associate for an indefinite period of time, perpetually "keeping his options open."

Nervous and uncertain, Chet finally decides to approach the owner of Quality Veterinary Hospital to see if she would consider selling him an interest in the practice. The owner, Dr. Quality, greets the request with open arms and offers to sell Chet a one-quarter interest for one quarter of last year's gross revenue. Chet is elated. When Dr. Quality brings him papers to sign, he eagerly executes them and becomes a 25 percent owner of the business in exchange for a 10 percent down payment and a 20-year promissory note.

Should Chet have exercised more care? What other questions come to mind? Did Dr. Quality sell the interest because she really likes working with Chet or because she's strapped for cash? Now that he's on the hook, is she planning to case up and work fewer hours? How will the staff react now that Chet is a boss and not just another peasant?

And Dr. Quality should have asked herself a few things earlier, but now it's too late. Does Chet plan to continue to treat the staff well? When will he request or demand a larger share? Will Chet's wife think she can nose around the books whenever she wants?

Is Dr. Q's remaining 75 percent interest going to be hard to market at retirement time because of Chet's ownership interest?

Only time and litigation will tell.

Dr. Allen is a partner in Associates in Veterinary Law, P.C., a law practice specializing in business and legal counsel for veterinarians and their families. He can be reached at or call (607) 648-6113.

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