Nipping Disputes in the Bud

While your relationship with your business partner may be amicable today, there is no guarantee of what lies ahead tomorrow. Paul Edels, a director at Goodman Grant, discusses your best plan of action if things take a turn for the worse …

Relationships are inevitably tenuous and at the mercy of fickle emotions. Even the seemingly strongest bonds can be ripped asunder when feelings are hurt and egos bruised. That change of heart may be a long time coming, or happen overnight. It’s only human nature – confounding and complex as it is – that we should find favour and then lose it along the way.

It’s not too different with relationships in the dental profession, where business partnerships are intrinsically personal and almost tantamount to a marriage. Even the most solid partnerships can disintegrate and leave both disgruntled parties wishing to see the back of each other. They fall out, hold different opinions, feel they are being taken advantage of or it might simply be the case that professional familiarity breeds contempt among them. While breaking up itself may not be hard to do, the actual process of extricating yourself from a partnership can be fraught with challenges and the potential for losses to your practice, your well-being and your reputation if you do not address them properly.

Granted, the prospect of conflict with their partners or associates is not something most dentists think of when considering the legal cover for their practice. For instance, when I mention I deal with dental law and litigation, many dentists assume that I am focused on clinical negligence, and they naturally already have that taken care of. They fail to look at the issue from the commercial context and that one day, they could be at loggerheads with their partner, associate, employee, expense sharer or even the dentist acquiring their practice.

When everything is amicable in the partnership, they may feel that there is no need to invest in drawing up a formal agreement that outlines all aspects of their relationship, including the course of action in the event they decide to part ways. In fact, this is the best time to do it, because it is easiest to define terms of agreement when everybody is “in agreement”.

Instead, it is kept as an informal relationship, either with only a verbal agreement or a sketchy written contract that could fit onto the back of a cigarette packet. Commercial drafting of agreements to formalise relationships will stand you in good stead. It is much preferred to waiting until the relationship is already in tatters, when it is far too late. Undoubtedly, the legal bill for fighting out rights and obligations in the absence of a clear written agreement, will be many times higher than the cost of the agreement in the first place.

So, what can you do if there has already been an acrimonious “split decision”? For example, an associate has jumped ship to a rival practice, and believes she is still owed wages. The principal, in contrast, argues that insufficient notice of her resignation was given, or that she is breaching the post-termination restrictions in her associate agreement. They may try to resolve the differences between themselves, although the chances of working everything out may be slim. The catalyst for the dispute may be minor, but if it is left to fester it can be blown out of proportion and the situation turns ugly.  

The most effective option to address a conflict is to get in touch with experienced and trusted commercial dispute solicitors as soon as possible. At Goodman Grant, we are experts in the dental industry and offer a tailored litigation service covering all of your business and regulatory needs. We can advise you on your best options and most effective means of resolving the dispute. We make sure you do not compromise your position from the outset with imprudent or potentially compromising actions.

When the dispute is still at an early stage, there remains the possibility it can be resolved by emails and letters, which would be preferable to taking it to court. People think that a claim can be done and dusted quickly in the courts, but the litigation process can take years, and always poses a significant financial risk. Will any possible benefits to be gained from battling it out in court for two years of your life, with the accompanying stress and costs, be warranted?

Parting ways is almost always difficult. Once emotions get out of hand, and people become fixated on retaliating against their former partners and associates, the prospect of a binding conclusion to the dispute dims. It’s advisable to contract the services of a good dental lawyer to reduce the likelihood of disputes by having the important agreements at the ready.  And if the horse has already bolted, early legal advice is crucial to achieving the outcome you desire.

Whatever the situation you find yourself in, Goodman Grant can help you settle the dispute – and let you get on with treating your patients.


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