Q: My new employer asked me to sign an employment agreement that has a non-compete clause in it and offers a compensation package that includes stock options in the company. The cover letter suggests that I have an attorney review the document before signing it; this appears twice in the letter. It means that if I sign the agreement, I am signing it with full knowledge of the ramifications if I leave the company.
Is there any research I can do on my own without hiring an attorney to better understand the document and how I should respond? I can then adjust the language in the contract if it seems to be one-sided, and I can ask for certain protections. If I were to use an attorney, what type would I use?
A: You make it sound so simple. Non-compete agreements are anything but easy, and this area of law is also complex. Many fields lend themselves to people who have various abilities — a do-it-yourself handyman who can handle painting, carpentry and minor heating, ventilation and air-conditioning fixes — but it's best to hire professionals for gas and electric lines. The same is true in law.
The field of law is filled with exceptions, variances, restrictions, requirements, rules and regulations, though some areas are far more complicated than others. Just as you would not want an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) to perform colonoscopy (instead of a gastroenterologist), you would not hire a real estate lawyer to handle an employment law matter. They are both medical doctors and both lawyers, respectively, but neither has experience in the other's specialty. Laws also vary state to state, so a non-compete agreement in Texas, for example, is likely to have different allowances and restrictions than a non-compete in California. Though the field of law has not been divided into specialties as medicine has, law is so complex that attorneys choose to concentrate in certain related areas once they join a firm or begin a practice of their own.
Of course, you should read the terms and benefits in the offer letter and the non-compete agreement, but you do not have the legal education or background, and specific knowledge of your state's labor laws to conduct your own critical review. It would also be a serious mistake to use a lawyer outside of the area of employment law, a mistake worse than doing it yourself. This is why the company has urged you to have an attorney review the contract before you sign it.
Once your attorney approves of you signing and returning the document to the company, it will be very difficult if you violate any of the terms of the agreement without experiencing a legal battle and perhaps a substantial loss. You may think you would never do such a thing, but one never knows what the future holds. It is important for you to find an attorney in employment law who represents the employee and not the employer. Attorneys represent one or the other, as it could pose a conflict of interest if they accepted both sides as clients.
It's often a difficult to decision to choose a firm and an attorney to hire, but it's to your advantage to take the vetting process seriously. Your career happiness could hang on this lawyer's ability. Ideally, your attorney will find the contract acceptable and recommend you sign it. Less positively, the terms may be one-sided, leaning toward the company, so your attorney may suggest deletions and additions and recommend you not sign the contact unless the company accepts the changes. (Companies rarely accept changes unless you're a star performer.) Even less favorably, you may need the job so badly that you are willing to accept unfavorable terms, knowing they will cause serious problems if you happen to violate any of them. Or, you may know your worth and decide to refuse the offer and continue your job search, as a difficult one-sided contract may be the first warning sign of a potentially difficult management situation.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.