Felicity Conrad and Kristen Sonday were on very different paths until three years ago. Conrad was an associate at the powerhouse law firm Skadden Arps. Meanwhile, Kristen Sonday, a Princeton grad and the first person in her family to go to college, was reflecting on the several years she’d spent with the U.S. Department of Justice in Mexico City, working to extradite fugitives.
As it happens, both were coming to similar conclusions about the U.S. legal system, including that it’s especially challenging for people who don’t speak English. For Conrad, an opportunity to litigate a pro bono asylum case would set her on a path of wanting to do more for people seeking persecution from their own countries. For Sonday, the experience of working with foreign governments had a similar impact.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that soon after they were introduced by a mutual friend who thought they’d get along, they decided to create Paladin, a New York-based SaaS business that today helps legal teams sign up for pro bono opportunities, enables coordinators to track the lawyers’ work, and which captures some of the stories and impact that the lawyers are making through their efforts.
Put another way, the software helps legal departments see the return on investment when they allow their attorneys to donate their time.
The company’s offering is timely, including for legal departments like that of Verizon, which has 900 attorneys and a global pro bono program that it uses Paladin to help manage. (Verizon owns AOL, which owns TechCrunch.) Lyft, a newer client, has a 50-person legal department and recently launched its own pro bono team.
Given how quickly immigration and other policies are being changed under the Trump administration and uneven guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the need for legal help is growing by the day. (For its part, Lyft, — among a long line of tech companies to speak out in support of immigrants’ rights — is committing some of its lawyers to reuniting families that have been separated at the Southern U.S. border, says Conrad.)
One question is how scalable Paladin’s offering is. The biggest challenge for the outfit right now would seem to be that few corporate lawyers do the kind of pro bono work that’s often most needed yet which involves litigation matters outside the scope of what they practice, including around immigration laws, social security benefits, and criminal and domestic abuse matters.
Sonday says Paladin has the solution to that, adding that the seven-person company has raised $1.1 million from investors — Mark Cuban, Hyde Park Ventures, Backstage Capital, R2 Ventures, MergeLane and Chaac Ventures, among them — toward that end. What it plans to build, exactly: infrastructure that connects with organizations on the ground with legal services and law firms all over the world, no matter their size. Basically, it will begin acting as a matchmaker for legal departments, helping lawyers find the pro bono work about which they can feel most passionately.
Ultimately, Conrad and Sonday are betting that anything that makes the process of finding pro bono work a lot easier than it is today — where many well-meaning attorneys have to resort to Google searches — will increase the numbers of attorneys who give back to society. They’re also think that when law firms can better track the impact their employees are making, we’ll see more, and bigger, pro bono programs.
Says Sonday, “Right now, just 10 to 20 percent of law firms have someone in-house to manage that pro bono work. If we can help the other 80 to 90 percent of lawyers” connect with the people who need them most — and who they feel good about helping — it’s a win-win all around,