Running a dental practice and law firm could be exhausting but for Dr Angela Pierce, her dual careers are challenging and exhilarating. By Kerryn Ramsey
When dentist Dr Angela Pierce completed her law degree, she had no intention of giving up dentistry. This new qualification was an addition to her life and she fully intended to work as a dentist and a lawyer.
“From day one I said, ‘If I’m studying law, I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m not just studying law for interest’,” recalls Dr Pierce who had been working as a dentist for 25 years before starting the law degree at the University of Adelaide. “I knew that having degrees in dentistry and law would give me a fairly unique combination of knowledge. Obviously, medico-legal and dento-legal were areas on which I would focus but I also enjoy other aspects of the law, such as commercial contract law, estate law and succession law.”
Not only did she work full-time as a dentist while studying full-time as a law student, she also looked after her two children. “I didn’t have a life,” says Dr Pierce, laughing. “Of course, it was exhausting and there were many late nights but I really enjoy studying. I’m just a nerd, I guess.”
Now working in both private dental practice and in her law firm, Angela Pierce & Associates, she is well aware of the benefits of holding two qualifications.
“I find that my legal clients are relieved that they can talk about such things as the mesial distal aspect of the upper left six without having to go into huge amounts of detail,” says the dentist/solicitor. “I’m so familiar with regulation in dentistry, it’s much easier for the client. I know the questions to ask so they don’t have to explain everything in detail.”
A common issue Dr Pierce covers as a solicitor is assisting clients with enquiries from the regulatory bodies, including the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
It may be a patient complaint about a dentist, or a dentist with a complaint about another dentist.
“It’s very difficult for the dentist because the complaint process can take a long time and they live with the worry over their heads,” explains Dr Pierce. “Even though the majority of complaints against dentists end up with no case to answer, the process can take six months or longer. In the early days, some cases took years to establish there was no case to answer but AHPRA has worked hard to reduce these times.”
“I knew that having degrees in dentistry and law would give me a fairly unique combination of knowledge.”
Dr Angela Pierce, dentist/lawyer
As well as helping clients with the submissions to AHPRA, Dr Pierce assists dentists with commercial transactions when they’re setting up or splitting up businesses. “This can sometimes involve disputes between dentists, which aren’t as uncommon as you think.” She also covers contracts and conditions of employment for both dental practitioners and employees.
“Through the SA Branch of the Australian Dental Association (ADA), I lecture to new graduates about what happens when they are offered a job and the first steps when joining a practice. I explain that they don’t have to rush to sign the contract. I also look after young dentists from time to time if they get into any kind of trouble.”
A tale of two careers
To manage her two careers, Dr Pierce splits her time evenly between the two positions. “I call it an eight-day-a-week job,” she quips. And if that’s not enough to keep her busy, she also sits on a number of different committees.
A former president of the South Australian branch of the ADA, Dr Pierce is currently one of the federal councillors and sits on the national board of the ADA.
“Being on ADA federal council is terrific because you really get to know what’s happening,” says Dr Pierce. “This includes influencing policy which is something I very much enjoy.”
She also sits on the Professional Services Review for the Australian Government Department of Health in Canberra. This panel deals with Medicare fraud. “When doctors or dentists are abusing the Medicare benefit system, the extreme cases go before a panel on which I sit from time to time.”
While most of her legal work is based in Adelaide, she has to travel to the specific state where the dentist is working when undertaking a review.
“There may not be many people who want to invest so much time and effort to become practising lawyers with significant dental clinical experience.”
Brad Wright, barrister, Queensland Private Bar
To keep her calm on the most stressful days, Dr Pierce has a good sounding board—her eldest son and lawyer, Davide. He joined the firm 18 months ago while her other son, Thomas, is now studying at University of Sydney, completing a double degree in design computing and German.
Dr Pierce’s passion for dentistry and law was apparent when she was deciding on her degree at Loreto College in Marryatville, South Australia. “Back then, I was encouraged to do medicine, dentistry or science,” she recalls. “They were the hardest things to get in to; law was a bit easier so I wasn’t encouraged to do it. But over the years, I kept thinking, ‘I love English; I love language; I love history.’ There was no career guidance back then but if it had been 30 years later, I probably would have been encouraged to apply for law—not that I didn’t like dentistry.”
After completing her dentistry degree at the University of Adelaide, she worked in general practice, followed by a master’s degree in oral pathology. Her next move was to Stockholm, where she completed her PhD at the Karolinska Institute on tooth and bone resorption in the late 1980s.
“There was a lot of study being done in this area at the Karolinska and I really enjoyed it. I comfortably slotted into that big area of research,” says Dr Pierce.
This encouraged her to become a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, working in academia for about a decade. “I used to supervise research students, particularly in the orthodontics field which was closely related to my PhD. I kept my affiliation with the university until I became registered as a lawyer.”
During this period, Dr Pierce worked as a general dentist at Burnside Dental Practice, located seven kilometres from Adelaide’s CBD, for 11 years.
By 2001, she was ready for a new challenge. “I became disillusioned with academia,” admits Dr Pierce. “I decided to have a mid-life retirement. I took the boys to the south of France and traded foreign exchange for three years.”
During her European sojourn, she decided to make the big career decision—to start her law degree when returning to Adelaide. She completed the degree in 2011 and soon after hung her shingle as Angela Pierce & Associates.
Although there are few professionals with dental and legal degrees in Australia, she found a compadre in barrister Brad Wright. He graduated as a dentist at the University in Queensland in 1982, followed by a law degree in 2006. He has been full-time at the Queensland Private Bar since 2011.
“I find that my legal clients are relieved that they can talk about such things as the mesial distal aspect of the upper left six without having to go into huge amounts of detail.”
Dr Angela Pierce, dentist/lawyer
They met at the ADA Federal Council in 2010. As Mr Wright says, “Angela and I occasionally discuss matters and, both being both dentists and practising lawyers, it is much easier to examine the issues. I am sure that she is uniquely able to assist dentist clients as a solicitor and I often recommend client dentists to her.”
On the case
While it’s rare for professionals to have both dental and legal degrees and practise in both in Australia, it may be more common in the future as litigations and regulation become more frequent.
However, Mr Wright points out that, “It’s a long journey from dentistry to actually practising law. There may not be many people who want to invest so much time and effort to become practising lawyers with significant dental clinical experience.”
Dr Pierce acknowledges that dentists need to be well aware of the legal issues facing the profession. “Dentistry today is very different from when I started,” she says. “Now it’s all about risk management and that can make it quite difficult for young dentists trying to move their careers forward.
“It’s not just about being sued—there are also serious repercussions if AHPRA receive a complaint about a dentist. If it’s shown that the dentist did something wrong, then the Dental Board of Australia can place conditions on their registration—and those conditions are advertised. When a client looks up a dentist online, it will list the imposed conditions, which may say they have to complete a certain amount of study or that they can only practise supervised. It only takes the smallest thing to go wrong and the impact on a dentist’s career can be devastating. In serious cases, the Board can suspend or cancel a dentist’s registration. These days, dentists have to be doing the best they can all the time.”
Running a legal firm and a dental practice simultaneously has given Dr Pierce a unique perspective on both careers. “Dentistry is an amazing career because you can travel and work internationally. I’ve met a variety of amazing professionals and we all share the same language. I’ve gained huge benefits from working as a dentist and I’m eternally grateful to the dental community.
“There will come a day when I retire from dentistry and that will happen before I retire from law. Law is an easy career to continue part-time into your retirement. Dentistry is, I think, more stressful because you are operating on clients, face to face, all day. Law can be busy and stressful but it’s possible to pace it at your own rate.