Sucharita Basu knew she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up from watching her solicitor father at work. Her fondest childhood memories are of visiting him at work in his chamber and marvelling over the work desk, his pencils, markers, his library of leather bound law books, the green engross papers, the red cloth strings which bound bunches of legal papers together and the typewriter. “I used to love it all – the black gowns, the smell of books, the colourful stationery, the busy court streets and that love inspired me to not think of pursuing any career other than law,” she exuberates.
Then tragedy struck. In 1996, while she was in law college, Sucharita lost her father and his beloved law firm. “This was a crisis period in my life. I was sad, distraught, unguided, and disillusioned. However, I continued to pursue the law course and due to the occurrence of certain events, I simultaneously started working as a legal trainee at Khaitan & Co. I have never thought myself to be anything apart from a lawyer and today when I look back I realise that for me it was always preordained,” she says.
She quickly rose through the ranks at Khaitan& Co. to become an associate partner. But in 2015 she, and her co-founders, felt they were ready to strike out on their own. Aquilaw started as a mid-level law firm with about 10 lawyers in Kolkata and 10 in Delhi. “We have a robust litigation practice, all forums, both civil and criminal. My team does corporate, real estate, infrastructure law and other non-litigation advisory/ documentation,” says Sucharita.
Unlike the droves of qualified individuals leaving Kolkata for greener pastures elsewhere, starting up in Kolkata was the default choice for Sucharita. She feels that Kolkata’s reputation as a city that is not very happening means that it is brimming with potential for those who want to tap it. And she definitely does. “Kolkata has enormous growth potential. Our strategy is to strengthen our foothold in the eastern part of India and our vision is to grow into a national full-service law firm from here,” she says. Aquilaw is established in Delhi and is now eyeing Mumbai as its next expansion target.
Having had to give up her father’s law firm under distress, the loss had always sat heavy with her. She was resolved to start her own firm someday. When business pragmatism and sentiment were in sync, she and her co-founders took the plunge. “We had about 15–17 years of experience, our networking, our well-wishers, our goodwill to attract some talents and the real determining factors were getting this awesome office space in the High Court area and our friends in Delhi to partner with us.
I must also mention another thing that really excited me when we first launched Aquilaw. When I gave up my father’s law firm, it was in this space that I had found a home because I because my erstwhile employers kept offices here. Now this office is for our law firm and it feels like life has come a full circle,” she shares.
Aquilaw’s name is a convergence of civilisations. “I started thinking that this firm should be a collection of talents with bright ideas who are not afraid to be a part of a #startup and want to live their dreams, a collection of ‘stars’, if you will.” Thinking about stars led her to ‘Aquila’, a constellation in the northern sky. “Incidentally, in Latin, it also means ‘eagle’ which sort of blends with the concept of ‘legal eagles’. And in Hindu mythology, the constellation ‘Aquila’ is identified with the ‘Garuda,’ the vahana of Lord Vishnu.
“We could have given our firm a name with Basu/Mehta as a prefix or suffix. The reason we did not want that is to reinforce our ideology of creating an organisation which grows, survives, and succeeds beyond its founders,” explains Sucharita. “Our office is all glass, contrary to the quintessential wood chamber older law firms, only to emphasise the concept of transparency, clear communications, and meeting of minds,” she adds.
Aquilaw is bootstrapped from the savings of its co-founders. Sucharita says, “We are too young now to think of profits. We first want to increase our practice areas and bandwidth. We are here for the long haul and this is only our gestation period. The objective is not to grow fast but to grow steadily. We completed one year on September 20, 2016. I think we have been able to achieve a stable growth rate till now.”
“The hardest part about being an entrepreneur was leaving a lucrative job in a top firm by taking the final plunge out of my comfort zone,” she admits. Her next biggest limitation is time management. She and her husband Sanjay Basu, who is also a co-founder at Aquilaw, are responsible for their young child and elderly parents. She also is a part of various legal committees and sits on several boards. She teases that choosing a supportive husband is the best career decision she ever made. She narrates, “In her book ‘30 Women in Power,’ Naina Lal Kidwai mentions, ‘I always say, choose your husband with care” as that is the first career decision a woman is making.”
She finds the best part about starting up to be the continuous thrill of building something new. “The other thing which I am absolutely loving is the process of soul-searching that we do. We try to dissect each compliment and every criticism. The compliments encourage us and the criticisms improve us. The maturity which our personalities have gained as individuals in the last one year would not have happened if we would not have taken the plunge,” she states.
She has had mentors aplenty, but Sucharita’s best advice comes from a book she returns to frequently: “In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says, ‘Please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.’ I often recall this particular line before taking bold decisions.”
Sucharita cautions that starting up is probably the hardest thing you will ever do. And you will make many mistakes when you do. “There will be hardships, criticisms, and moments of despair. However, one has to transcend these. It is never too late to restart.”