Zakiya Norton and Somita Basu celebrate nine years as business partners, and there is no better way to mark this milestone than by talking about their origin story. The duo shares how they met and started a law firm three months later. They look back on bootstrapping their business by taking advantage of their corporate background and even using their loved ones as guinea pig clients. Zakiya and Somita also share how they found success by prioritizing customer needs and serving the community instead of simply focusing on generating huge revenue.
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Celebrating Nine Years: Looking Back On Zakiya Norton And Somita Basu’s Law Firm Origin Story
This is Annie Tyler, the Director of Marketing and Business Development at Norton Basu. We are all back again for the first time with an episode. We want to catch up with Zakiya and Somita. We’re going to catch up with how they are and how they started. It’s a great origin story. They’re co-founding Copartners, Zakiya Norton and Somita Basu. You have an estate planning and probate law firm but that’s not the fun part. The fun part is how did this all start a couple of years ago? How did you meet? Why were you crazy enough to start a firm about three months after you met? Tell me how that all went down.
We were both trying to figure out what was going to be the next thing in our lives. I was moving back to California. I’m a native of the Bay Area. I knew I didn’t want to be back in big law. If anyone has worked in big law, you know the answer to that and the reason why. I couldn’t sit around on my butt so what was I going to do? I needed to volunteer and do something meaningful. I was looking for opportunities to do that.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Somita was moving here from Singapore. If you ever want to make her mad, you can ask her about her time in Singapore, which she hated with a passion. She was there for a decade. It’s like Voldemort. We don’t talk about it. We don’t say the words. It was the same idea. She didn’t want to go back to what she was doing and was looking for a way to be a good human being as she is. We both happened to start at Bay Area Legal Aid at the same time. You know the date.
It was October 31st, 2013. I landed in California on August 7th, 2013. I was not even here for three months before I started at Bay Area Legal Aid. I remember wearing my little sweater set.
You looked so conservative.
I had straight straightened hair. It was long, straightened hair. I was wearing conservative clothes. I remember walking into the training on the first day and there were a lot of what looked like high school students but they were law students or recent law graduates. Zakiya was sitting on the other side of the table from me during the training. She kept making jokes or little comments and I was the only one laughing. That’s when I realized, “She’s not as scary as I thought she was going to be.”
I was dressed like an actual lawyer then as well with my little black and gray striped Calvin Klein dress. I remember it fondly. I looked at you and thought, “She’s an adult. She’s never going to think I’m funny. This is going to be terrible.” You were looking at me like, “She’s a real lawyer. She’s going to find out I’m a fraud immediately.” None of that was true. We were in the same unit on the housing, whatever they called it, fighting the good fight for all of the tenants here to not get evicted. Our desks were next to each other. The laughter began pretty quickly.
We have the same sense of humor and the same approach to working. The way we sized up people and what we thought of them was very much the same.
She’s talking about gossip. We gossiped the same and about the same people, which is the foundation of any important relationship. We hated the same people and liked the same people. We gossiped our way right into our best friendship. I had been thinking about going out on my own for some time. I had already decided that it was going to be estate planning. I don’t know why but I was like a little child obsessed with what a retirement plan is at nine years old. I looked at her one day and I said to her, “Have you ever thought about going out on your own?” Your eyes got super big. You were like, “Yes.” It might have been the next day that we started researching what we needed to do. I say we but you researched.
I was thinking that I was going to do family law.
I talked you out of that quickly.
Zakiya talked me out of that. She was like, “We’re going to do estate planning.” I was like, “Wills and trust? That was the worst class in law school. It was so boring.” She’s like, “Trust me. This is what we want to do.” It turned out to be the perfect fit for us because on the estate planning side, that’s where you get to be very legally creative, which is what Zakiya is good at. On the probate side, you need to be good at processes and numbers and that’s what I’m good at. It turned out to be a perfect fit for us but at the start of it, I was like, “Wills and trust?”
You were a little bit skeptical.
I was less than enthusiastic about the idea at the outset.
You went with it. I convinced you somehow. It turned out to be good because you do the numbers and the process. Even though I like numbers, I joke about them. I always pretend that I hate them but you love them. There is also structure. I have no organization skills inside my body and Somita is full of them. It worked well. Three months after we met, we hit the ground running. We had our website up. We were sitting in coffee shops and writing all the content for the website. We did it all.
It was very much a bootstrapped startup vibe that we had. We didn’t think of it as we need to be lawyers. We were like, “What would any other firm company do when they were starting?” You need a website, an entity, a tax number, marketing and to network.
That’s where our corporate backgrounds helped us because we had an understanding of what it takes to run a successful business. We thought we at least knew. It turns out that we learned a whole lot since then. The corporate backgrounds helped us approach it more as a business instead of thinking about it as a legal entity first. It was a business entity in our minds where we happened to be doing legal work.
Law Firm: If you have a corporate background, you have a basic understanding of what it takes to run a successful business.
The structure of the business or the way we thought about it was as a business first and as a legal business second. We always knew that you have to focus on the business side to make anything work. You can’t just focus on, “What am I filing in court?” The other thing was we didn’t come over with a book of business. We know a lot of attorneys who went out on their own but they brought a book of business with them from the big firms that they were at before. Since you were from Nevada coming in and I was from a place that shall not be named, we did not have a book of business to bring over that would help ease the transition. We started from zero.
It was an actual bootstrapping all the way up. We harassed our friends and family, as you do whenever you start a business, to let them be the guinea pigs for us as we figured out what we were doing. They all agreed. We re-did everything for them. Once we knew what we were doing, we re-did it all for them. We came back and cleaned up everything and they made sure it was good. They let us practice on them and find our way.
Some of our friends came through as well. They continue to be wonderful referral sources. My parents waited until we were in year eight of practice to come and get their estate plan.
They maybe would argue that we are competent but they would never say that out loud. My mom let us practice on her pretty early but my dad is still a no. We’re never going to get that one. It is not going to happen. That is in a nutshell. After that, you make your way through the years. That was how we met and what the early days looked like for us.
You mentioned networking. You guys are good at it. That’s how we met. When I met you, I noticed that unlike a lot of attorneys, you are business savvy. The next thing I want to talk about is a focus on client service. When you said attorneys think of it as a legal business, they think about what kind of legal work they’re doing. They don’t think about the client experience, the clients waiting for calls or how the client doesn’t understand the terminology. Tell me how you’re different in that way.
That’s a good point. I will say that the corporate background played a role in this but it’s our nature as well. We went into this knowing we were going to do white glove, super high touch service. That’s what we wanted to do but be a small firm providing that so you’re not lost in the shuffle. You’re not just a number to us. You matter and we care. We deliberately went about crafting our practice that way. That does mean that it’s going to take you longer to get where you want to go, right?
When you do things the right way and you stick to what your vision is, what your morals are and what your philosophy and your ethics tell you to do, you end up turning away stuff. Maybe your top-line revenue suffers. As attorneys, one of the biggest issues that attorneys have with their work life is that they are servicing clients they don’t like or they’re on cases that they don’t believe in. That contributes to the high rate of overall misery in the legal profession.
Law Firm: When you do things the right way and stick to your visions and morals, you will end up turning away things that do not serve you.
We decided from the very start that we are only going to take clients that we want to work with and cases that we feel are worth taking. Have we turned down cases that could have been big revenue generators for us? Yes, but we work with the people that we like. These are people whom we respect and who respect us. We go out of our way to make sure that they understand what’s happening. Throwing around Latin phrases or complex legal terminology, we all know attorneys who do that. We don’t do that at all. To me, it shows a stronger mastery of the subject when you can explain it in layman’s terms.
Two phrases were the backbone of this idea. One was from Somita, which is cream always rises to the top. We kept that in mind with what we were doing because it does take longer. My little phrase was not all money is good money. That’s hard to live by in the early days when you’re looking for crumbs but if you stick to it, then you can shape your practice the way that we have, which is clients first. That’s how we like it.
Law Firm: It is hard to live by in the early days of a business. But if you stick to it, you can shape your practice the way you like it.
There is another thing I know about you. I know you probably won’t bring it up but I will. That is that you help the community, volunteer, mentor other attorneys and present education to minority groups and other groups that need it but do not know a lot about estate planning. I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you to tell me some of the things you’ve done that maybe people don’t know about.
We have done a lot. We live by the principle that once you get a seat at the table, then you’ve got to add more seats and bring more people to that table. That’s what we’re always trying to do. We very much know that estate planning is this black box thing. People are afraid of it and intimidated by it. We wanted to take some of that away by making what we do accessible and making ourselves approachable so that people could find out. You don’t know what you don’t know but let’s start talking about it. That is what we’ve been doing.
We’ve done educational workshops all up and down the Bay area. That is from regular people in the community to doing seminars at New York Life and teaching their agents what they should be talking about with their clients. We still do things like that for realtors, financial advisors and CPAs. We are always trying to get the word out about what we do and why it’s so important and make it accessible for everyone and their clients as well.
One of the things that are almost not logical if you think about it and seem counterintuitive is that the less you have, probably the more you need an estate plan. People feel like, “I don’t have a lot. I can’t afford to get an estate plan done. I don’t have that much. I don’t have an estate.” The less you have, the less your family can afford to go through probate and afford to deal with the delays and the costs that are associated with this court process in California, which quite frankly is painful.
If your estate is worth $5 million, $6 million or $7 million, your family can usually can afford the weight and can afford to cover expenses while the process winds through court. If your estate is worth $500,000, probably not so much. That fee is going to be a much bigger portion of your estate than you would like. We try to get the word out to all communities that this is an important thing to talk about and consider. There are a lot of communities where talking about money and death is not done. It is culturally taboo for a lot of people. We’re trying to break through some of those barriers and bring that knowledge to those communities.
I’m going to say the thing we’re dancing around, which is that there are Black communities here and Indian communities. There are not a lot of Black and Indian attorneys who are in the estate planning space. It’s very rare for these communities to get to see an attorney that looks like them, understands them and can speak their language so to speak. There are a lot of Black folks. We’ve been pushed out and gentrified out of the Bay Area to a large extent but the ones that are here are owning homes. Maybe they have a business. They’ve got generations here. They have not had access to this kind of information. Here we come, being able to talk to them in a way that’s much less intimidating. That’s a big part of why we do what we do.
Cultural competency is a thing. To be able to talk to people and reference things that are culturally important to them makes a difference in the way the clients connect to us. We can talk about those kinds of things with comfort. Whether you’ve lived overseas or you owned property overseas or your family has the same house for three generations here and you’re trying to hold onto it, whatever it may be, we can address that because we have that lived experience.
You brought that up. It is about generational wealth and preserving that. It’s very important for all people but it’s particularly important in minority communities. Sometimes, they don’t know what they don’t know and then assets get lost and the next generation has to start all over. It shouldn’t have to be like that. You worked so hard for it. Your kids and grandkids should enjoy it. Let me ask you. Have you done education and mentorship for other attorneys like California Lawyers Association?
Yes. I served as the Chair for the Solo and Small Firm Section of the California Lawyers Association. One of the roles of that section is to provide education, training and support for solo and small firm attorneys. One of the things I have said during my entire five-year tenure in that section has been that path is a lifeline for a lot of minority attorneys. It could be for women, Black attorneys or minority attorneys where big law is never going to fit them.
Big law, unfortunately, is still 25 years behind every other corporation or business. While that is slowly grinding through incremental change, you can at least make a living for yourself and practice the way you want to practice free from the million little paper cuts that you suffer when you work at a firm like that. All the little micro-aggressions that you have to deal with, you don’t have to do that as much if you can be a solo small firm attorney.
Zakiya and I have done webinars for the solo, small firm section. We’ve presented throughout the years. We’ve contributed to books on how to run a small law firm and have written articles. We’ve done a lot of things to help solo small firm attorneys. Anytime a law student will reach out to us, Zakiya is always happy to mentor them.
I like the baby birds, as I call them. Nobody has been a lawyer before in my family and had no real entrepreneurship. My mom and dad have dabbled a little bit here and there but nobody has gone through this experience so I know what it’s like, especially for young women attorneys. Especially if they’re minorities or Black, I know what that journey looks like and how terrifying it is sometimes to feel like you’re the only one. You don’t know where you can go to get these resources that you feel everyone else has available to them. I’m always happy to be that resource whenever I can and help get them to where they want to go. I’m always happy to do that.
You’ve enlightened my estate of mind about you, how this came to be and why you’re in your successful ninth year. I want to thank the audience. I also want to thank you for joining us. I hope you’ll come back next time when I will heckle Zakiya and Somita some more.