Degrees of Success
words by Merry Sue Baum / photograph by Pete Byron
There simply are not enough hours in the day to simultaneously practice dentistry and law. Or so one would think. But John P. Little, DMD, JD, MPA, manages to do both quite successfully, and enjoys every minute of it. He does admit, however, that at times it can be a bit tricky. I practice dentistry 30 hours a week, and law about 10 to 15 hours a week, and spend about 10 hours a week on practice administration, he explains. I have to be very disciplined, or it won’t work. Another thing that makes it possible is that I can do most of my legal work on the computer. I couldn’t practice dentistry if I had to leave the office and go to court.
His specialty, dental practice transitions, involves drawing up contracts when a dental practice makes a change, such as bringing on an associate, forming a partnership, or selling a practice. For example, John P. Little and his father, John L. Little, DDS, are partners with a partnership agreement in their Sea Girt, New Jersey dental practice. Our agreement covers issues such as what would happen if one of us becomes disabled or wants to retire, he explains. Legal documents like these are designed to protect the dentists involved.
Little enjoys his legal career, even though he rarely meets clients face-to-face. He corresponds by e-mail and phone, and he sends the actual contracts via overnight mail. His first love, however, is dentistry. As a teen, he and his brother often assisted their father in his dental office, if an emergency arose and no one else was available. We’d hand him the instruments and suction, he explains. It was a family business, and I had always planned to go to dental school. It’s rewarding and it provides a nice lifestyle. His brother, Brian, a physician, is a graduate of UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine.
So why did he go on to pursue a second career? Simply put, he wanted to expand his academic horizons. As an undergraduate, Little was in an accelerated program that guaranteed acceptance into dental school after three years of college. By the time he graduated from NJDS in 1993, his academic focus had been solely on science. Also, in the early 90s, there were several issues that I thought might have a major impact on dentists, he explains. Managed care was coming into being and severely affecting physicians; malpractice claims against physicians were increasing; people were questioning if the AIDS virus could be spread by a dentist; and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was increasing regulations and related fines. I decided going to law school would kill two birds with one stone: It would satisfy my academic curiosity, and I could handle the legal aspects of those issues, if they became problematic.
After one year in residency and one year in practice with his father, Little enrolled at Rutgers University Law School in Newark. At first, he worked part time while going to classes, but quickly decided work was taking away from the academic experience. I truly enjoyed learning about the law, he says. I think it is great to have that background in law, especially constitutional law, which involves issues such as free speech, civil rights and illegal search and seizure. And the legal background helps me in my dental career.
Little doesn’t recommend a dual career for every dentist, since it requires multi-tasking all the time. There is next to no down time, he says. And I’m always reading either a law or dental journal, to keep current. For me it works, because I get bored quickly and always want something to do. I like to be busy. And busy he is. Besides his careers, he is vice president of the NJDS Alumni Association, a member of the New Jersey and New York Bar Associations and the American Dental Association and is on staff at Jersey Shore Medical Center. He also lectures once a year to the seniors at NJDS on practice management. I always tell the students, you don’t have to be a lawyer to run a practice, he says. But you do need good advice, so find competent advisors.
Little and his wife, Suzanne, an ER physician, do carve out free time to spend with their 2-year-old daughter, Catharine. And occasionally they go to the beach. Even there, Little may do some reading about one profession or the other. When I was in law school I met a dentist who had a law degree. He told me it was impossible to practice two professions at once, he says. Some days, he says smiling, I think he was right.