Since the beginning of his legal career, Rick Cotton has made pro bono work a priority.

“I have always believed that part of our legal system is the equal justice for all,” he says. “It’s important to devote time to pro bono activities.”

Now, as executive vice president and general counsel of NBC Universal, Cotton is passing that passion on to his legal team. Four years ago, he led a meeting with his team–both on the east and west coasts–and challenged them to not only develop a pro bono program, but also a culture around getting involved in the work.

“He really set the tone in that meeting,” says Daniel Kummer, vice president, litigation and content protection, and coordinator for NBCU’s east coast pro bono efforts. “Pro bono programs have been more prominent in the private bar. But there is no reason in-house lawyers can’t be involved.”

Cotton’s approach to pro bono work is flexible. NBCU lawyers that participate in the pro bono program have the opportunity to work on various ongoing projects. These include Dress for Success, a group that helps prepare low-income women for the workforce entry process; Street Law, which arranges partnerships between legal departments and diverse high school students interested in law; and Alliance for Children’s Rights, which provides free legal services and advocacy to protect the rights of impoverished and abused children. But if an NBCU lawyer finds other pro bono work in which to participate, he or she is encouraged to take on that project individually or set up a team to work on it with the approval of the pro bono coordinator.

Jennifer Dominitz, vice president, legal affairs, and coordinator for NBCU’s west coast pro bono efforts, says the key to the department’s successful pro bono program lies in the positive culture Cotton has created internally to encourage his lawyers to get involved. “He has been an inspirational leader,” she says. “He leads by example. And he recognizes us for doing this work.”

Cotton’s goal is to have at least 50 percent participation within his legal department. This year, they’ve at least met the goal, if not exceeded it, according to Kummer.

And these efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In July, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association announced it will present its 2010 Exemplar Award to Cotton for his “many years of service as a champion for pro bono assistance, commitment to diversity and contributions to legal assistance for people unable to pay for a lawyer.”

Cotton is humbled. “I am proud of creating the framework [for the pro bono program,] and I’m delighted the NBCU lawyers have responded so enthusiastically,” he says. “I view the award as recognition to the number of NBCU lawyers that have stepped up to the challenge.”

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