In Pursuit of Justice
Paladin cofounder Kristen Sonday stands at the intersection of social justice, innovation, and technology to fight for equal access to justice
By Amanda Garcia
The word “Paladin” describes the knights of Charlemagne’s court in the sixteenth century, individuals known for their courage and bravery, a team of heroes who fought the good fight in the name of justice.
Paladin also describes a company cofounded in 2015 by CEO Felicity Conrad and COO Kristen Sonday that can be described in much the same way.
Sonday’s first job after graduating from Princeton University was as an international affairs specialist for the US Department of Justice, which took her to Mexico City for work in criminal justice in Mexico and Central America. “While I loved every second of that job, I was greatly impacted by how complicated our US justice system is—especially for victims with limited resources or who don’t speak English,” Sonday says. Seeing the disproportionate availability of legal assistance to the most vulnerable in the system sparked a passion for equal access to justice for all, and a desire to help provide it.
That passion didn’t wane when, a couple years later, Sonday took on a new challenge as a founding member and director of international operations at the web-based social club, Grouper. She navigated her first start-up experience at Grouper, and developed her professional passion for technology, both of which laid a solid foundation for her current work at Paladin.
Tipping the Scales
Every lawyer in the United States has a professional responsibility to complete fifty hours of pro-bono work each year—a worthwhile investment because 86 percent of low-income individuals who need legal assistance don’t receive it. Currently, less than 20 percent of attorneys are part of a network or program that will connect them with pro-bono clients, and most of those programs function in a manual, tedious, spreadsheet/email-oriented way. This means that the majority of lawyers who want to help don’t know how or where to go to find out.
“It’s a huge disparity,” Sonday says. “So, we built a system to help.”
Paladin exists to provide equal access to justice through an online network that connects and tracks pro-bono programs within corporations with clients who need their assistance. It is one centralized platform that can be used to staff, manage, and track the impact of pro-bono work. Not only does it save a large amount of time, but it also allows attorneys to be matched with cases that they’re most passionate about—and it offers a sophisticated system for collecting data. “Our goal is to increase pro-bono engagement while decreasing the cost,” says Sonday, adding that, long-term, Paladin is interested in building a global pro-bono network to connect people in ways they never have been before.
“We’re in the business of increasing collaboration,” Sonday says. Increasing visibility and transparency of pro-bono work and impact is key to that goal. “More than simply tracking hours, we want to tell the stories behind the cases, and we want to celebrate wins.” So, Paladin captures data that focuses on quality of work in addition to quantity.
An incredible byproduct of telling inspiring stories about pro-bono work is that quantity also tends to increase. “Organizations find more attorneys to volunteer,” Sonday explains, “and attorneys find more cases that they’re passionate about, which allows a pro-bono program to better harness its workforce.” Plus, the organization is able to gather better information to recruit and market their pro-bono program—not to mention the paramount achievement: providing under-served clients with access to assistance they wouldn’t have otherwise. “Everyone wins.”
Narrowing the Justice Gap
Between the recent immigration ban, the instability of DACA, separation of families at the US/Mexico border (not to mention things like devastating hurricanes, the opioid crisis, and other issues), there has been an unprecedented need for pro-bono work in the past eighteen months. Thanks to the great visibility of these issues, there has also been an increase in lawyers who are interested in doing pro-bono work. “We’re excited to be able to provide tech to facilitate that connection,” Sonday says.
Most recently Paladin was able to help Lyft launch their first pro-bono program this summer. “It’s been great to see them getting involved,” she says. “At the end of the day, we’re using technology to empower attorneys to do more pro-bono work and scale it in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
But while Paladin’s innovative platform is a fresh and exciting tool, the sad reality is that the tremendous need for legal assistance among the vulnerable is nothing new. The justice gap has disproportionately affected women, children, Latinos, and other minorities for most of history.
“When I was with the DOJ, some of our victims were children, and seeing them undergo traumatic experiences was painful to watch,” Sonday says. But because those experiences and injustices have been highlighted at a national level lately, the hope that they become less frequent is prevalent at Paladin.
“The power that lawyers have to bring justice to our victims’ stories and experiences is powerful, and to be able to develop technology that can scale that impact is what drives our team,” Sonday says. “To the extent that we can provide resources and advocates to those who need assistance; it’s truly an honor.”
Paladin is a team of modern-day heroes who have created a tool to connect attorneys with those on the verge of losing hope. They stand at the center of this uniquely powerful intersection of passion and profession, justice and technology, old laws and new beginnings, to fight for equal access to justice every day.