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Forget Design! Join the Law Firm of Dewey Cheatem and Howe!

Having just wrapped up a five-month “transitions” group for several Edge members who are wanting an exit strategy, I couldn’t help but do a little brainstorming. Seeing how difficult letting go of their businesses was going to be, I tried to think of what a better outcome would have been…if they could have done some things differently starting twenty years ago.

So, yes, these thoughts are probably not of much value to Edge members 50 and over, but for the younger ones, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My approach began with the question, “What if interior design firms were structured as partnerships, and operated more like law firms?” After all, law firms don’t seem to have any trouble at all creating a pipeline of future partners that secure the future of the firm long after the founders have retired or passed on. And even then, the founders’ names remain on the letterhead!

And while alive, these founders can keep their offices, keep their “emeritus” titles, and stay involved as much as they want—precisely what my transition group members said that they would wish for.

I know that interior design is an incredibly creative field, but I’m quite sure that most lawyers would say that their work is as well, just not visually. So let’s not use that criteria as an excuse as we consider what it takes to become a partner in a law firm.

Who Makes Partner?

For this exercise, you should be thinking of these individuals as the ones you would hire and who you literally would place on a partnership track within your firm. Here are some guidelines for what it takes to become a partner of a law firm from an online source. I’ll add to them comments based on design firms I have worked with.

  • The quickest route to partnership is to bring in new business. New clients are the life’s breath of law firms. Strangely, it is rarely the case that interior design firm principals insist on new hires bring in new business of their own. They more often see themselves as the sole rain maker. But why? Why not set expectations from the outset that every designer must make some of their own rain? This might also tempt the principal to make a hire of someone who had already run their own practice but was now looking to join forces.
  • Next best is expanding business from existing clients. Why not include in a junior or senior designer’s job description that they must regularly contact former clients and come up with creative ways to discuss future projects, updates, or referrals?
  • In addition to new business, you need high billables. That means working lots of hours – more than your competition. Law firms are famous for the “up or out” mentality. Only those willing to work 70+ hours a week have a chance to become a partner.
  • Make clients love you and don’t be shy about asking them to tell the firm’s partners how fabulous you are. Always return clients’ calls/texts/emails promptly. Make conversation personal to them. Keep notes about their hobbies, children, spouses, pets, recent trips, and anything else of interest. Most everyone likes to talk about themselves and they’ll love and remember you for asking.
  • Volunteer for firm functions and other social, community, and charitable events.
  • Create and participate in firm marketing endeavors. If your firm doesn’t have a brochure or newsletter, suggest creating one and prepare a rough draft of your ideas.
  • Get to know the principal. Don’t be a sycophant, but be cordial. Some will be more open than others. Remember though that your chit-chat isn’t billable time. I guarantee they’ll be thinking about it.
  • Don’t get a reputation for being a complainer. If there are genuine problems, bring them to the attention of the principal, but don’t get caught up in petty crap.
  • Always keep in mind: would you want yourself as a partner?
  • Before investing all this effort, be sure that being partner is something you really want. It’s not for everyone. It’s more work, not less. Also, if you’re not an equity partner, in many firms, you’ll be no more than a glorified senior associate.

Which brings us to the “equity partner” aspect. If you were to create a true partnership, you could have “junior” or “associate” partners that simply get a nice title and a big boost in pay. But at some point you would also need to have “senior” partners who became part owners of the firm. There might even be an opening for a “name” partner whose name would be added to the firm’s. This is ultimately what you want if you’re wanting an exit strategy.

In law firms, typical waiting periods are around seven years for the first level partnership, and ten years for the full partnership. As with accounting, advertising, and other firms that work on similar models, it is very much an “up or out” model. If you don’t make partner, no matter how long you have worked for it, you leave. The decision of who makes partner is at first up the principal, and as the firm grows, a committee of partners.

You might be thinking how you could ever afford this. Let’s say you hire a “junior designer” for $75,000 a year. But the moment they are hired, they know that in addition to modest annual increases, if they make “junior partner” in seven years, their salary will immediately double to $150,000. And if they make “senior partner” after ten years, it will double again to $300,000, plus an ownership interest in the firm.

If you don’t think you can afford that, I encourage you to read the list above again to see what this person has been doing for 70+ hours a week for all of those years. The assumption is that your firm would be MUCH larger under this structure than the one we typically see.

Those are just some thoughts, but if I were 40 years old and starting an interior design firm, I’m pretty sure this is the path I would take….from the get-go.

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