Heather Celeste Mitchell

Law by Design: Interview with Nicole Lanteri

This month, Law by Design interviews Nicole Lanteri, Interior Decorator at and Owner of On My Agenda LLC.

First, the Law by Design survey:

Favorite Designer(s):  Muriel Brandolini, Genevieve Gorder, Miles Redd, Abigail Ahern

Favorite Weekend Activity?  On Saturdays, I usually have a few client meetings so I savor every minute of my Sundays.  I love waking up really early.  I’ll either go for a long walk through Washington, DC with friends or walk to the Georgetown Flea Market with my husband.  Spending the rest of the day working through the Sunday papers and hanging out in our apartment makes for a perfect Sunday.

And now, for the interview!

L by D:  Thanks for taking the time to share your story!  Can you tell us about your design business?  How did you land your very first client?

Thanks for asking me to participate! I started my design business from the notion that many people have on their “to do” list “decorate house” or “hang curtains,” “select sofa.”  But on their list above all of that is “take kids to doctor, pick kids up from school, travel for work, get plumber to fix leak in house, go to grocery store.”  So I thought what if I took the decorating tasks off of your agenda and put them on my own agenda.   I wanted to make good design accessible, affordable and actually fun.  Almost all of my clients have never worked with a designer and never thought they ever would.  They viewed them as intimidating and way too expensive. But they were also overwhelmed with all of the furniture and design choices out there and as a result many just let the decorating fall off the list.  In the DC area, your home is likely the largest investment you have made and it’s a shame not to enhance it and make it feel like your home.  Your surroundings and environment really affect how happy and productive you are.  I just wanted to help busy people with too much to do navigate the choices in paint colors and furniture, spend their money wisely and make their home feel a little less cluttered and a lot more pulled together. 

My first client came to me by way of a very good friend who saw an “ISO For a Designer” posting on a local listserv.  We got connected and I helped her turn the space she carved out of her master bedroom for an office into an organized and inspiring place for her to write (she is a freelance writer who actually is now in the process of writing a book!).  I still remember how she cried happy tears when I did the final reveal of the space!  I was hooked and after that most of my clients found me through referrals.

L by D:  How would you describe your path from law student to design entrepreneur? 

I would now describe my path as making a lot of sense!  But while I was on the path, I’m not sure how I would have described it!

I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer but I also always knew I would have other careers.  I started with law to lay the foundation for future careers.  I couldn’t do what I do now without everything I learned while a lawyer and, more specifically, while working at the law firm and with the people I worked with.  I learned a lot about setting up and running a business, managing clients and employees, and dealing with and solving unexpected issues. 

My path from law school to entrepreneur involved a lot of patience and hard work and a real assessment of what it was I wanted to do, what I was good at, what I liked about my jobs.  For me, it was a constant assessment of the big picture and the day-to-day and even today, I am constantly evaluating my business at a high level and at the day-to-day level. 

My path from law school to entrepreneur really evolved from what was in law school a lot about researching classes and jobs and finding ones that matched my interests and skill set to, in my entrepreneurial life, creating a job that matched my interests and skill set.   I didn’t expect to create a job for myself that makes me excited to get up every day to work hard at what I do.

L by D: Can you pinpoint the time when you decided to make the transition from practicing attorney to design entrepreneur?  How would you describe your decision-making process?

In 2009, I knew that I needed to make a change in what I was doing but I wasn’t sure what that would look like.  Over several months, I met and talked with a lot of people (lawyers and other professionals) about their jobs and what they did and what they liked and didn’t like about them.  It was really helpful and great to get perspective and information on lots of different jobs and career paths.  I also saved every article I found about lawyers who had transitioned to another career and their process.  But I think I really wanted someone to tell me what to do!  I realized I had to make this decision entirely on my own without the help of rankings and reviews and actually had to ignore everyone’s opinions and advice to make the best decision for me.   I had to figure out what I could say “yes” to and just started taking small steps and making choices that led me to where I am now – I got rid of my fancy gym membership, I started writing a blog to help find my voice, I took a huge piece of brown craft paper and lined my kitchen counter with it and sketched out tons of ideas, I took a website design class and a couple of Photoshop classes, and not too long after I had clients and was working on interior design projects.  

L by D: How do you approach a new design project?  In what ways do you apply the skills you developed as an attorney to your design projects?  Any similarities between your work now and your work as a BigLaw associate?

Approaching a new design project is very much like approaching a new corporate transaction.  I ask a lot of questions, try to gather as much info as possible, prepare a one page proposal to recap the project (much like a term sheet), sign a contract with my client and then work at staying very organized during the entire design process.  I even have client binders lining my shelves in my office much like my old deal binders.  My job is still to represent the best interests of my client and really listen to what they want and provide them with that.  My work is also similar in that it involves coordinating a team of people as seamlessly as possible to get the job done.  Now I’m just coordinating electricians, painters, tile installers and deliveries instead of tax, ERISA and foreign counsel!

L by D:  What’s the best part of your job?

A happy client!  Just like when I was a lawyer. 

A huge highlight of my job is when a client says that they never ever would have thought of using a certain piece of furniture or paint color but they love it and can’t imagine the space without it.  I know I’ve done a good job.

L by D: Can you share with us a career challenge you’ve faced, and how you worked to overcome it?

There are lots of challenges in owning your own business – it takes a lot of work and you can’t just call in sick even when you are sick!  I have had a challenge with how to incorporate and manage my use of social media into my design business.  It seems so easy and you compare yourself to everyone out there blogging and tweeting all the time but it would not be sustainable to do it all and all at the same time.  I have to prioritize doing a good job for my clients, then working on accounting and legal for the business and then getting to the gym and seeing friends and family and spending time on things that inspire me.  Then I can work on social media.  Prioritizing this way keeps me engaged and inspired and lets social media be a fun outlet rather than a burden. 

L by D: What advice would you give other attorneys who are interested in exploring a career in design?

I think the same advice applies to any career change.  Initially think in terms of 3, 6, and 12 month goals.  Thinking beyond that will freak you out and you’ll feel paralyzed to make a decision to change careers.  Let go of any ego.  You will be starting from scratch more or less in a new field and need to be humble.  Be nice to everyone.  That goes a long way! You never know what sort of relationship you’ll strike up with someone and how that might be so helpful to you being successful in your next career.  Think about what you are good at, what you are not good at and specific parts about your current career that you like and don’t like.  Just because you are good at something that doesn’t mean you need to like it or should do it.  If you don’t like an aspect of your job now then you won’t like it in a new career either so find a way to take that out of your job description.  Don’t compare yourself to what others your age or with your same degree or in your profession are doing.  It’s self-defeating and counter productive. 

L by D: What are some of your professional goals for the next year?

One of my goals was to start becoming more involved with local charities and I’ve already met that this year by donating my design services and materials to redecorate a living room in a local women’s shelter in Arlington, VA for the amazing organization Doorways. 

A macro goal is to stay focused on doing good work and not growing too fast.  I want this to be my forever career which means taking a measured, disciplined approach to growing my business.  A specific goal is to become more efficient and streamlined on the accounting end of things – that eats up a lot of time! 

And, a fun goal would to be one of the volunteers that decorate the White House for Christmas!  It looks intense and crazy and really awesome.  I’d love to experience that.

Many thanks to Nicole for sharing her story with the Ms. JD community!  To learn more about Nicole's business, click here.  Keep up with Nicole's latest design inspiration on her Pinterest page.  And for a great post on Nicole's work with Doorways in Arlington, Virginia, click here.

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