Paladin’s evolution & lessons learned building an A2J tech company
Now that Paladin is 3 years old (🎉), with a product in the market and some amazing customers, we wanted to share how our vision for Paladin has evolved, and some absolutely critical lessons we’ve learned along the way.
If you’re navigating how to incorporate stakeholder feedback, build effective access to justice tech tools, or just curious about what we’ve been up to, we hope this is helpful. Of course, that isn’t to say that we’ve figured everything out — we are hard at work and learning new things every day, so would love to hear your thoughts, feedback or stories!
Starting with “why”
When we started out, we knew that access to justice was a big, knotty, and often overlooked problem that we were passionate about, but we definitely underestimated the challenge.
A landmark study by the Task Force on Justice recently found that 5.1 billion (!) people globally currently lack meaningful access to justice. In America, the 2017 Justice Gap Report found that “86% of legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.” The justice gap is growing wider, which disproportionately affects the vulnerable —like immigrants, minorities, incarcerated individuals, persons with disabilities, women, and so on.
The same study found that 1.1 million legal needs each year are unmet due to a lack of resources, and legal service organizations (LSOs) are forced to turn away between 41%-72% of legal cases due to lack of capacity. This is understandable when we consider that there is only 1 legal aid attorney for every 6,415 low-income Americans, compared with a 1:429 ratio in the general population. Put simply, demand for free legal services exceeds our current supply of legal aid attorneys.
The idea for Paladin was based on the fact that there are 1.3 million lawyers in America with an ABA professional responsibility to do 50 hours per year of pro bono. If that workforce was fully leveraged, 65 million hours in the U.S. alone would be donated to low-income individuals annually. While pro bono lawyers aren’t a silver bullet to solve access to justice — and certainly not a replacement for legal aid — we believe that private sector attorneys can help bridge the gap by helping increase legal aid’s capacity to serve more clients.
At the same time, we knew that the pro bono ecosystem was mostly managed by incredibly hard-working individuals using thousands of spreadsheets, emails and phone calls. We hypothesized that the right technology could help streamline the pro bono process, engage lawyers in more pro bono, and ultimately serve more low-income Americans in need. Sounds great, right? Well, yes — and, we learned that success is never linear.
Evolving from a Marketplace → Software
When we first set off, it seemed like the most useful thing we could build was a marketplace connecting lawyers with pro bono opportunities. We thought, if there are so many lawyers and so many individuals who need help, we should focus on the point of connection: matching lawyers with pro bono opportunities. Early user feedback sessions confirmed there was value in a matching platform, but much more research was needed.
To validate this, throughout 2016 we experimented with beta matching solo practitioners and small firms or corporate lawyers at smaller departments (i.e. those without an existing pro bono program) with opportunities from legal service organizations (LSOs) who added Paladin to their listserves and were looking for more volunteers. The idea was to match lawyers without access to a program with pro bono opportunities personalized to their interests in a weekly email digest.
After about a year of testing, we realized that a marketplace was the wrong model to engage lawyers in pro bono work.
Thanks to countless feedback sessions with pro bono stakeholders, experts, and mentors, we learned 3 key lessons:
1. Relationships Matter (i.e. Don’t Be a Middleman!)
Our intention was not to be a broker, but connecting attorneys without pro bono programs reinforced how essential it is to support the existing network of long-standing pro bono relationships. In particular, as a brand new organization in the ecosystem, we needed to earn people’s trust and quickly learned the importance of relying on experts to inform our approach.
2. Pro Bono Culture & Infrastructure Are Key
We learned that providing a channel for lawyers to find pro bono opportunities was only one piece of a larger puzzle. The vital work that Pro Bono Counsels, coordinators, and LSOs do to structure programs, foster pro bono culture, and garner support from leadership is a key ingredient to pro bono success.
3. Tech Should Support Pro Bono Professionals
This leads to our third major learning — our initial beta was focused on facilitating pro bono primarily from the lawyer perspective, but we realized a more valuable approach would focus on supporting Pro Bono Counsels, coordinators and LSOs in addition to pro bono attorneys. This broader focus expanded our product vision, but we were excited to see where it led.
In early 2017, with these lessons in hand, we packed up the beta marketplace and dove into more stakeholder interviews with pro bono professionals across law firms, in-house teams, law schools and LSOs to refine our approach. We adopted Co-Development and Design Thinking as core methods to inform what to build.
Based on extensive stakeholder feedback, we identified three key challenges that resonated across the ecosystem:
1. The Pro Bono Workflow Is Complex and Manual
Each pro bono professional we spoke with described the sheer number of steps they must take to place, monitor and close each pro bono case. When running a program at scale (i.e. across geographies, organizations, and thousands of lawyers), this process became a huge administrative challenge.
The idea of streamlining this process so folks could focus on higher-leverage work came up over and over, and became a clear focus for Paladin’s tools.
2. Engagement Is a Challenge
Almost everyone was trying to increase their engagement and/or make placement a less resource-intensive process. Relatedly, we repeatedly heard stories of lawyers expressing interest in a matter, only to find it had already been taken. Stakeholders were excited to explore how Paladin might help communicate the real-time availability of a case viewable across attorneys, firms and LSOs.
3. Data and Reporting Are Costly & Difficult
The third major theme across our user research was the challenge faced in tracking case status, outcomes, hours, and attorney/client stories. Pro bono professionals were spending tens or hundreds of hours a year manually collecting and organizing data. They were excited about the prospect of a centralized portal where they could visualize and slice and dice their data, and capture new types of data, like client outcomes and attorney satisfaction.
These three pain points became the bedrock of Paladin V.2, which grew into our pro bono management software. The interface looks something like this:
Fast-forward to today, we’re thrilled to report that Paladin’s software is live with leading law firms like Dentons and Wilson Sonsini and leading corporate teams like Verizon. By streamlining the administrative process, we’ve decreased administrative costs by ~80% and have boosted pro bono engagement significantly.
The best part — it’s working! We’re still iterating on the tools (and always will be), but it’s exciting to see Paladin start to achieve product-market fit, meaning we have happy clients, strong attorney engagement, and more low-income individuals are getting pro bono legal help through Paladin.
What’s Next? Evolving from a Software → Network
In early 2019, we launched the law firm platform with our co-development partners in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, and are rolling out with other leading law firms across most major U.S. jurisdictions. With thousands of lawyers now on the platform, we are starting to see real overlap in the LSO partners our firm and corporate partners work with.
To learn more, we’re doing a deep dive into the pro bono process from an LSO perspective. Interestingly, many of the challenges we’ve heard so far have mirrored those experienced on the firm and corporate side, and it seems like Paladin can provide real value. In light of that, we’re excited to kick-off a beta project with a number of LSOs to co-develop free referral tools designed to streamline their pro bono process, and plug into Paladin lawyers.
Going back to Paladin’s “why”, with 41–72% of cases being turned away by LSOs for lack of capacity, increasing this capacity is critical to increasing access to justice. While it’s necessary to build pro bono capacity within law firms, law schools and corporations, there is a real need for tech to help LSOs scale their operations and serve more clients in need. Furthermore, since funding is limited for legal aid, if that tech can be subsidized by the private bar also using the software, that would be ideal.
As we start to build referral and collaboration tools, Paladin’s vision will expand beyond a stand-alone software designed to streamline pro bono within an organization, to a network focused on streamlining and improving the process both within and between organizations in the pro bono ecosystem.
In the network model, Paladin is not a broker of pro bono, but rather provides technological infrastructure designed to support the existing pro bono ecosystem, and help organizations work together more effectively. Given the level of collaboration inherent within pro bono, we’re really excited about the possibilities through this model. Here’s what it could look like:
We’re still in the early stages of building the network, and are working hard to co-develop tools that support everyone in the ecosystem. To that end, we’ve recently launched a beta of free referral tools for LSOs, and are excited to continue co-developing, incorporating feedback, and iterating on potential solutions to realize this vision. Stay tuned for more!
Thanks for reading 🙌
We hope this has been helpful! If you have any thoughts, comments or ideas, or are interested in trying out/providing feedback on any of our tools, we would love to hear from you at email@example.com.