A Pro Bono Champion: How Kristen Sonday is Creating Equal Access for Legal Services
Kristen Sonday, Co-founder and COO of Paladin, is on a mission to help those in need by providing them the opportunity to obtain pro bono legal resources and programs.
Paladin was founded as a means to increase access for low-income individuals as it became clear that many people were not receiving adequate legal assistance in the times they needed it most. Now, Paladin is a thriving ecosystem that is helping legal teams build out and run better infrastructure to sustainably support pro bono clients.
We asked Kristen about why she chose to start a company like Paladin, how her definition of success has evolved throughout her journey, and what’s on the horizon for her and her business.
Q: Tell us the story behind your company’s founding: How and why did you start working on Paladin?
A: Paladin’s mission is to increase access to justice by helping legal teams run more efficient pro bono programs. Currently, about 86 percent of low income individuals’ civil legal needs in the U.S. aren’t adequately met, yet there are about 1.3 million attorneys with a professional responsibility to do 50 hours of pro bono work per year trying to manually connect with clients. Our software helps attorneys at firms, in-house, or through their bar memberships seamlessly access well-aligned pro bono opportunities to help those most in need.
Q: What are some of the most meaningful impacts your business has had so far? What makes your company different from others?
A: Paladin has connected thousands of individuals in need with attorneys who can help them. Our volunteer attorneys are on the front line of the legal aid crisis helping clients avoid eviction, obtain asylum, resolve family law issues, land public benefits for veterans, form nonprofits, and beyond. It’s an honor to help them more easily lend their life-changing skills.
Additionally, Paladin is the first ecosystem-wide infrastructure that connects legal services organizations directly with law firms, in-house teams, and private attorneys through their bar associations, rather than just acting as a public volunteer-matching board. We leverage data from individual attorneys and organizations as a whole to better match clients in need, capture engagement, and report on impact beyond just the number of hours committed. We’re also the first Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) in legal, emphasizing our commitment to giving back in addition to building a scalable, sustainable justice tech company.
Q: In what ways has your upbringing or past experiences contributed to how you operate as an entrepreneur?
A: As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know anyone at Princeton when I stepped onto campus, nor did I have connections to my first job out of school. My work has always had to speak for itself, which is why no job is too big or small for me. Leaders lead by example, which is why it’s important that I always put in the work, am proactive, and do it with grace and integrity. Having hustle and grit are how I got to where I am today, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.
Q: What’s one thing you wish you had known before starting your company?
A: When you’re creating a new product category, there’s a period in which you’re educating stakeholders about why this hasn’t existed before and why it’s important to focus on now. That education requires an in-depth understanding of your ecosystem, its history, and how you uniquely fit into it. Everything takes longer as a result, and I wish we knew how to better prepare for that.
Q: Has your definition of success evolved throughout your journey as a founder?How do you celebrate successes along the way?
A: As a woman and Latina, I used to think that success meant proving myself as a competent and reliable founder to help change the face of what success looks like. Now I’ve realized that success actually means empowering others to be successful so we can change the narrative collectively. I’m much more interested in helping others find their voice now that I feel I’ve found mine.
Additionally, it helps to have a community, even if it’s just a few people, of other founders with whom to share your successes and failures. It can be a lonely and tough journey, so having someone you can talk to, take a break with, and grab a drink with are essential to the entrepreneurial journey—and are also ways I like to celebrate!
Q: How have you grown as a leader since starting Paladin? What experiences have contributed to this growth?
A: I was naive about how hard it would be to build justice tech infrastructure because I didn’t truly understand the existing players and landscape. Doing that research, and having hundreds (or thousands) of conversations about the justice gap, has shed light on why something like Paladin has never existed before. I’ve realized that the only way we’re going to make lasting change is through intentional and thoughtful collaboration, which takes time.
Q: What have you learned about building a team and a support network around yourself?
A: You have to be comfortable hiring people who are smarter than you are and who challenge your way of thinking. Especially as you grow and delegate work, you’ll want to find people who complement your strengths and weaknesses, and have diverse viewpoints to build the most well-rounded and impactful product possible. In fact, one of my favorite things about our team is that they’re constantly probing my views and asking really insightful questions. It’s important to create a space in which your team feels empowered to voice their thoughts, rather than stifle them.
Q: How would you describe the journey you’ve had in a few sentences?
A: My journey thus far has been one of constant evolution. Every time I think I’ve solved a big problem, ten more arise, so I’m constantly humbled by what I don’t know! At the same time, every answer does bring you one step closer to having even greater impact. It’s exciting to feel and see that progress and have it validated by your market. Even though it can be incredibly stressful, I wouldn’t change my role for anything!
Q: What’s next for you and Paladin?
A: We see pro bono as a wedge into a very underserved global justice tech market in which 5.1 billion people currently don’t get access to justice. Paladin has an opportunity to build a large and scalable company while having unparalleled impact in the justice system, which is what gets me so excited about our mission.
Kristen is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.