All startup founders hope their business will fill a demand—that their big idea quickly finds its place in the market and can solve a problem. For the founders of Paladin, a digital platform that matches qualified lawyers with pro bono cases, the demand for its service came faster, and with higher stakes, than the company might have imagined.
When Kristen Sonday and Felicity Conrad launched Paladin this January, they knew the legal and political landscapes were in transition. What they didn’t know was that within weeks of its launch, the Trump administration would issue a travel ban that would cause an immediate and nearly unprecedented demand for pro bono legal counsel from affected—and often detained—travelers.
In those early weeks, Paladin’s enrollment grew from 50 members to more than 1,500, drawing lawyers from top firms, universities and corporations, including Etsy and NYU School of Law. Hundreds of volunteer lawyers flocked to airports, working tirelessly while sitting on terminal floors to help free detainees. Paladin was suddenly on the front lines of a happening that was making global headlines, and the fledgling service was put to the test.
“It’s a bit weird,” Conrad admits, “because while you definitely want early momentum with a startup, you don’t necessarily want to be right on something like this—on huge numbers of lawyers feeling they have to come forward to help thousands of people literally overnight. In pro bono work, that sort of sudden, increased need isn’t a good thing. But Kristen and I are thrilled that Paladin can bridge the gap between people who need lawyers and the lawyers who can help them.”
Long before the travel ban was issued, the need for pro bono legal representation was already urgent. The U.S. has 1.3 million lawyers, and the American Bar Association (ABA) recommends that each aspire to 50 hours of pro bono work annually. However, many firms do not have in-house pro bono coordinators. As a result of a combination of factors, 80 percent of those in need of free legal help never receive it, according to the ABA. Paladin aims to rectify that by helping lawyers who are looking for these types of cases.
A trained and practicing lawyer herself, Felicity Conrad experienced the impact and importance of pro bono work up close. While working at a major New York law firm, Conrad represented a Colombian man and his family who had fled to the United States after an assassination attempt, but faced deportation over an expired visa. Conrad won them asylum.
“It changed the course of their lives,” says Conrad, a graduate of the NYU School of Law who had previously worked on issues related to genocide and war crimes at the UN. “Afterwards they took us out to McDonald’s to celebrate—it was what they could afford—and it was one of those rare, sweet, profound experiences in life. It got me excited about the fact that even as a private-sector lawyer I could have such an impact. And it got me thinking: Why isn’t everyone doing pro bono, and how do we make that possible?”
In July 2015, Conrad met Kristen Sonday through a mutual friend at a music and arts festival on the Jersey Shore. Sonday grew up in New Jersey idolizing strong female leaders like Hillary Clinton and German chancellor Angela Merkel. “I was interested in learning about women who were leading in unprecedented ways,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea that policies and laws could help shape people’s lives, and that fired my passion for social justice.”
Sonday attended Princeton, becoming the first person in her family to go to college. She then went to work as an international affairs specialist for the Department of Justice, where, she says, she “got to experience the complexities of the legal process firsthand—how difficult it was to navigate, especially if you’re on your own, an immigrant or disadvantaged in any way.” After two and a half years, Sonday switched gears and tried her hand in the private sector, helping to launch a meet-up app. The experience gave her insight into what it was like to build a business from the ground up while furthering her passion for connecting people with one another.
When she and Conrad met, they immediately discovered their shared convictions. “It was incredibly inspiring to find someone who was as passionate about social justice as I was,” Sonday says. “We complement each other. Felicity is brilliant, very conceptual, a high-level thinker, and I’m much more an execution-oriented, linear thinker. We knew our work experiences could mesh, and after staying up literally all night talking to each other in a tent at that music festival, we came up with the idea of building a platform that helps scale access to justice.”
At Paladin, Conrad is the CEO, Sonday the COO. Working in partnership with legal aid organizations, the company—which is currently in the process of becoming a B Corp—receives pro bono requests and then notifies members whose skills, interests, and availability fit the need. The company also offers a database on which certain lawyers can search for opportunities. Paladin keeps track of data, such as hours spent and the outcomes of cases, allowing members to gauge the impact of their pro bono work.
Today, Paladin serves New York, Baltimore, San Francisco and Chicago, “but we want to be across the U.S. by the end of 2017,” Sonday says. “If not sooner.” Next steps include expanding internationally, as well offering other professional pro bono opportunities outside of law, such as engineering, finance and marketing.”
Bridging the pro bono gap isn’t the only cause Paladin believes in. The company is also committed to diversity: Sonday is Latina, of Puerto Rican descent; four of its five full-time employees are women; two are immigrants, and two are first-generation college grads. Conrad and Sonday know it’s a small step, but an important one—the business equivalent of making the world the kind of place you want it to be.
“We come from varied backgrounds and experiences,” Sonday says, “and I believe that helps us analyze what’s going on in the political and the cultural climate in a more immediate, impactful way.”
#FacesofFounders, a campaign by the Case Foundation, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Google for Entrepreneurs, and UBS, in partnership with Fast Company, celebrates dynamic and diverse entrepreneurs. Learn more at facesoffounders.org.