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Putting Teeth into the Law

Most dental school graduates find fulfillment in their chosen profession. But some yearn for even more, and these three dentists found the missing pieces of their careers in the law.

Dr. John Little ('93) had his career in dentistry all figured out: From undergrad days at Villanova University through graduation from the New Jersey Dental School, right on to his father's practice in his hometown, Spring Lake, N.J.

His professional future stretched to the horizon in a smooth, unbroken line­and then came the unnerving question from within: Is this it?

As it turned out, no. Intellectually restless and sensing a growing amount of legal and business issues in dentistry, Dr. Little enrolled at Rutgers Law School, graduated last year, and went to work for a Roseland, N.J., law firm. He is also completing a master's program in public administration at Rutgers University, a course of studies geared toward healthcare management.
And, oh yes, the 30-year-old Hoboken resident still practices dentistry two Saturdays a month with his father.

"I enjoy practicing dentistry. I just couldn't see myself solely practicing dentistry for the rest of my life," Dr. Little explains. While he considers himself "primarily a lawyer" at this stage, he adds: "I don't want to do either one full-time forever. I want to do a little of both."

He's not alone in bridging these two careers. Dr. Robert Logan ('75) and Dr. Paul Sauchelli, a clinical assistant professor of General and Hospital Dentistry at NJDS, also went on to become lawyers. They had to juggle schedules and finances to be reborn as law students, but it has paid off, they note, in added opportunities.

"When you're a dentist, your professional opportunities are limited. With a law degree, I have many options," reasons Dr. Little, who anticipates working on behalf of defendants in medical malpractice cases. He also can draw up contracts for dentists who want to sell their practice or take on an associate, and advise healthcare professionals before they sign with managed care organizations or management service organizations. Indeed, Dr. Little authored an article for the Rutgers Law Review about managed-care contracts and the pressures directed at physicians by HMOs.

In addition, Dr. Little could use his extra education to teach, lecture, or administrate in a residency program or dental school.

Dr. Logan devotes three-quarters of his workweek to his Kinnelon, N.J., dental practice, which focuses on crown and bridge work and cranial-mandibular disorders. The other 10 hours a week, he uses his legal training to counsel dentists on business dealings: buying and selling practices, forming partnerships and associateships, and helping dentists develop practical goals for their practices. "Too many dentists make important business decisions without any values clarification or proper planning," says Dr. Logan, who graduated from Rutgers Law School in 1990.
"Litigation is not an area I'm interested in," he adds. "The whole adversarial nature of a lawyer's practice turned me off, and that's why I do not do litigation."

The courtroom, on the other hand, was just where Dr. Sauchelli found his second calling. "I had been involved as an expert witness in a [dental malpractice] case or two, and I found it to be very interesting and stimulating," Dr. Sauchelli recalls. A graduate of Temple University's School of Dentistry, he enrolled in Seton Hall Law School and graduated in 1992.

Today, Dr. Sauchelli splits his time between his general dental practice and his legal practice, both based in Watchung, N.J. He has been an expert witness about a dozen times in malpractice cases, both for the defendant and the plaintiff, and teaches a required course, "Ethics and Jurisprudence," at NJDS. He also has lectured to fellow dentists on becoming an expert witness. "It can be a rewarding adjunct to their practices," he notes, not just in the fee of $250 to $350 an hour, but as a way to reflect on the care they themselves use in treating patients.

What does Dr. Sauchelli tell those who attend his lecture? "I tell them that it's an adversarial system, that they have to be prepared to substantiate everything they say, to be asked difficult questions, and to be put in difficult situations. There's a lot of time that goes into it, a lot of preparation time. You just have to have the personality not to take any of it personally, to get your point across and not get flustered." Dr. Sauchelli spends most of his time as an expert witness defending his colleagues. However, when he does appear on behalf of a plaintiff, it is not surprising that some dentists don't take kindly to his testifying against a fellow dentist, to which Dr. Sauchelli responds: "There are cases involving true negligence, and the plaintiff has as much right to be represented as anyone else."

Regardless of their individual ambitions, all three men had to be resourceful to afford-in money and time-years more in the classroom. Dr. Little took out loans to help pay for his in-state tuition, while studying both day and night and savoring the complete student experience. Being single helped, too. "If I had to support somebody else, I don't know how I could have done it," he concedes.

Dr. Logan had two children to support while attending Rutgers Law School a decade ago, but says he scheduled appointments around his studies and, by becoming more efficient, cut his practice to 20 hours a week while maintaining his income. Dr. Sauchelli, married and the father of two daughters, found the double duty "all-encompassing" but manageable. "Full-time [studies] doesn't mean I couldn't work. I worked," he relates.

The would-be barristers also had to adjust to a "complete change of curriculum," as Dr. Sauchelli puts it, one that doesn't stress science so much but requires copious amounts of reading and writing. "I had never written so many things before, from high school through dental school," he remembers. "I was used to filling in little boxes." Dr. Little found himself in a similar situation: "I had to start from scratch and re-learn how to write. That's the challenge."

While he's acquired a whole new field of knowledge since graduating from NJDS, Dr. Little says it all dovetails back to his original choice of professions. "Everything I want to do in law is connected to dentistry and medicine," he stresses. "I read all the dental journals and stay current with all the techniques, because I still enjoy dentistry."

 

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