This Latina is Changing the World by Making Legal Help Way More Accessible

Kristen Sonday understands the importance of both pro bono work and women’s rights, so much that she has made helping others the greatest priority of her career. After working at a start-up and even gaining experience with the United States Department of Justice, she co-founded the incredible start-up Paladin, a platform designed to match pro bono cases with available legal represenation. Kristen is a COO, a fellow RBG enthusiast, AND recently named the Code2040 (backed by Google) Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Chicago to help increase diversity in tech– basically a total badass.

Name: Kristen Sonday
Age: 29
Location: Chicago, IL
Current Title/Company: Co-founder and COO of Paladin
Education: Princeton University

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
In high school, I worked part-time at a small law firm that did estate planning. It was my first real job, and I made so many rookie mistakes (I’ll never forget mailing an empty envelope to a client)! I learned how important it is to develop an environment in which you can embrace mistakes, learn from them, and be unafraid to ask questions.

You started out at the United States Department of Justice. What was your role there, and how did it shape the future trajectory of your career?
My first job out of college was serving as an International Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Justice Department, working on criminal matters related to Mexico and Central America. I loved every minute of it: compiling legal documents, developing relationships with our international counterparts, and helping bring fugitives back to stand trial. What struck me most was how meaningful the work was to me–advocating on behalf of victims for justice. We were literally changing people’s lives through the law! I knew then that I would ultimately end up working in social justice.

After the DOJ, you made a non-traditional move to the startup life. What did you learn from working for a start-up, and how did it motivate you to start your own?
People often ask if I plan on getting my MBA, and I explain that I already got one at Grouper (my first startup)! As part of Grouper’s founding team, I worked on everything from marketing to operations to product to HR. I learned what it takes to build a company from the ground up, to rally others around a mission, and to grow a sustainable business. I appreciated my time at Grouper, but at the end of the day, it was someone else’s vision. I took some time off in between startups to make sure my next move was right, and Paladin turned out to be the perfect intersection of my love for social justice and technology.

You met and bonded with your co-founder just recently in 2015. How did your professional relationship develop, and how does it continue to do so?
Felicity and I were introduced by a mutual friend at a festival during the summer of 2015. We had so much in common (she had done pro bono work through the UN and International Criminal Court, I had my DOJ experience) that we hit it off straight away, and disappeared into a tent to talk after dinner. We were so deep in conversation about the access to justice gap and social impact that by the time we emerged, we had accidentally pulled an all-nighter!

Even though there are 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S., the system is so disaggregated that about 80% of low income individuals who need legal help never get it.

My best advice on finding a business partner is to find someone who naturally complements you, and whose personal ethos is well-aligned. Felicity is very conceptual and a great high-level thinker, while I’m much more detail and execution oriented, so we balance each incredibly well.

Tell us about Paladin. What is its mission and purpose, and why are you so passionate about its impact?
Paladin is a pro bono platform connecting lawyers and law students with personalized pro bono opportunities to increase access to justice. Even though there are 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S. with a professional responsibility to do 50 hours of pro bono per year, the system is so disaggregated that about 80% of low income individuals who need legal help never get it. As we’ve seen in recent immigration-related events, having a lawyer can literally mean the difference between life and death, so I’m passionate about providing that access to all.

So exciting — Paladin is moving out of beta stages and into national production this year! What are your other goals for 2017, both professionally and otherwise?
Thank you! The reception thus far has been wonderful, and we’ve seen a surge in pro bono interest over the past few weeks, which is exciting. This year, we’re focused on launching Paladin’s pro bono services nationwide, expanding internationally, and eventually moving into industries outside of law (think engineering, finance/accounting) to offer access to professional services more generally.

Why is it important for women to be informed about the world issues around them? Why is it important for ANYONE to be involved politically?
It’s especially important for women to be informed about world issues so they can actively engage in our democratic process. We make up about 50% of the U.S. population, but only represent about 20% of Congress. More broadly, the beauty of democracy is that every voice is entitled to be heard, and it takes open-mindedness and education on the issues to arrive at the best solution for the common good.

By increasing access to justice, we strengthen some of our most vulnerable populations, which in turn strengthens society as a whole.

Is there anything you wish you had known before starting your own business? What has been the most challenging lesson to learn?
I wish I had known how crucial it is to focus. It’s easy to get distracted by high-profile or short-term projects, but unless your team is truly focused on your core product or service, you’re going to have trouble delivering. For example, after the latest Executive Order was issued around immigration, I wanted to develop a number of apps on the side and launch dozens of new partnerships, which would have taken away from delivering an excellent experience for our current members and the amazing work they’re doing. It’s been a challenge to learn to say no to external projects, but it’s worth it in the long-term.

What do you wish more people knew about the importance of pro bono work? How does Paladin and its mission relate to the general public?
The need for pro bono legal work is extreme. For example, there is only 1 legal aid attorney per 6,415 people in poverty, as opposed to 1 lawyer for every 429 people in the general population. Furthermore, the access to justice gap disproportionately affects women, minorities, and immigrants. By increasing access to justice, we strengthen some of our most vulnerable populations, which in turn strengthens society as a whole.

Trust that you’ll eventually find the perfect culmination of all of your past experiences in a career that’s truly fulfilling.

What’s the hardest career lesson you’ve had to learn, and how does it affect you now?
The hardest lesson I’ve learned is how to turn rejection into motivation. I’ve heard a lot of “no”, “this won’t work”, and “you can’t do this” along the way. However, as an entrepreneur, you’re naturally breaking down barriers, so you have to overcome those doubts and use them as motivation. I have a mental list of those who’ve doubted me that I use to get fired up when I need it the most.

Where do you see your career going next? What are you most looking forward to?
Right now I am focused on having the greatest impact I can through Paladin. I would love to tackle the access to justice gap and then move on to helping solve another global issue, but I am dedicated to public interest work long-term.

You’re outspokenly passionate about the potential of young Latina women. How has your own childhood impacted what drives you now, and what are the best ways to support young women in our own communities?
I am a huge proponent of mentorship, and as a first generation college student, relied a lot on mentors to help me navigate my academic and professional career. In fact, I recently came across a study that found that exposing students to successful role models and mentors with similar backgrounds, coupled with educating them on potential career paths and opportunities, significantly increases their confidence and chances for success in a given industry. So, by simply being visibly active in your community, mentoring others, and facilitating professional connections, you can make an impact in developing others!

What advice would you give to your 23 year old self?
Coming out of school, I was focused on a set career path without really knowing what else was out there. As I started expanding my network and learning about other opportunities, I realized that every job was a learning experience to discover my ideal career. It happened on the younger side for me, but trust that you’ll eventually find the perfect culmination of all of your past experiences in a career that’s truly fulfilling.

Kristen Sonday is The Everygirl…

Starbucks order?
Green tea with honey

Dream bucket list vacation spot? 
Havana, Cuba

Go-to breakfast? 
Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich

Favorite award show to watch? 
The Grammy’s

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why? 
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Not only has she been an unparalleled champion for women’s rights, but her intelligence, confidence, and determination have also made her an incredible role model for young women.