Zakiya Norton and Somita Basu of Norton Basu: Why We Need More Women Founders & Here Is What We Are Doing To Make That Happen

An Interview With Kristin Marquet

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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It is our experience that in the field of law, women tend to practice with a greater emphasis on compassion. They also possess a better grasp of the practical implications of various decisions, which impacts litigation concerns. And it may be said that women have more patience!

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zakiya Norton and Somita Basu.

Zakiya has a strong strategic mindset for litigation matters and a keen eye for the intricacies and potential pitfalls of estate planning. She understands that just because something is possible, that doesn’t always mean it’s practical. She leans on her extensive legal experience when advising her clients without ever losing her signature sense of compassion, kindness, and sense of humor.

Somita’s life and background are truly representative of America’s diversity and mobility. She brings a unique cultural perspective to the firm. Having lived and worked abroad and as an immigrant herself, Somita has a deep appreciation for how cultural perspectives can impact decision making for her clients and understands the complexities of handling overseas assets.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

In 2013, we each began volunteering with Bay Area Legal Aid in San Jose, California to contribute to our local community. We met, by chance, on the first day of training which ignited a lifelong connection that was strengthened by working together on multiple complicated cases (and sharing a common sense of humor). This forged a powerful, unique and instinctual partnership that inspired us to take a leap of faith and bravely open our own practice only three months later. We decided early on that we wanted to be in control of our own fate and to be in a position to offer women and minorities the option of working with an attorney who understands their culture, their background and their specific needs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

A surprising discovery, as we sought to expand our practice and increase the volume of clients we served, was that even “competing” women lawyers are a significant source of referral business. Perhaps the reason for this is because they understand the determination it takes to overcome the inherent gender bias in the legal community. Perhaps it is because we all practice slightly different types of law. Whatever the reasons, we have established a mutual kinship with our fellow estate planning attorneys and enjoy a very collaborative climate.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

An accomplished attorney agreed to mentor us. So, with gratitude and enthusiasm, we eagerly made the two-hour drive to soak up his wisdom. As it turned out, he provided no advice or guidance and offered to refer cases which would not generate fees. So, we left empty handed! We learned to value our time and not to jump at every potential opportunity until it has been fully vetted. As the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The truth is, we had to be entirely self-reliant. We educated ourselves and proactively availed ourselves of no-cost or low-cost resources. We persevered without the initial support of our family, friends or peers. We learned to trust our instincts and fail fast by pivoting instantly when necessary.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

We were profoundly impacted by Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson because we had the good fortune to make his acquaintance at an event. When we mentioned that we intended to start our own law firm, he cheered us on and motivated us by sharing his passion and dedication to challenging the bias against the poor and the minorities in the United States criminal justice system.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Not all money is good money.” When we started our practice, we were under tremendous pressure to take more clients, lower our fees and work outside our area of expertise. Instead of succumbing to that, we held true to our principles. This ensured our ability to maintain our top priorities: Practicing ethically, with a clear conscience, and giving our treasured clients the undivided attention they deserve.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

One of the ways we use our legal acumen to make the world a better place is by our involvement with Justice At Last, the only law firm in the San Francisco Bay Area that exclusively serves survivors of human trafficking. We also support Cancer Care Point, which provides services to cancer patients and families at no cost and the Solo and Small Firm section of the California Lawyers Association. Our hope is that we also encourage other women, especially minority women, by showing them that they can overcome and succeed in a male-dominated industry as we have.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Perhaps a lower risk appetite holds women back from founding companies, because they may have no financial safety net or need to put family obligations or other commitments ahead of entrepreneurial pursuits. There is also a lack of mentorship and guidance, as well as a dearth of funding for women founders. All of these factors contribute to a steeper uphill climb for ambitious and creative female entrepreneurs.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

We always make time to mentor any female lawyer who is considering opening her own firm or growing a small practice by sharing the lessons of our struggle and warning of the pitfalls that we had to learn the hard way.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

It is our experience that in the field of law, women tend to practice with a greater emphasis on compassion. They also possess a better grasp of the practical implications of various decisions, which impacts litigation concerns. And it may be said that women have more patience!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Increase Funding Opportunities
  2. Provide Mentorship
  3. Add a Practical Element to Law School, e.g., an internship to learn the real-world application of legal concepts
  4. Reduce Debt Burden
  5. Expand Childcare Support

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If we could inspire a movement, it would be the push to provide Universal Health Care. Concerns about health care, even with the Affordable Care Act, make it a risky proposition for any founder to start their own practice.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

A private chat with Michelle Obama would be at the top of our list. She’s an incredibly insightful, strong and talented black female attorney who has also demonstrated excellence as a mother, wife, and daughter. One of the toughest challenges for a female founder can be striking just the right work/life balance and she is a shining example of career ambition coupled with a dedication to family.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We invite you to visit our website at https://www.nortonbasu.com/.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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