As part of its corporate credo, NBCUniversal Inc. pledges, "We believe in doing the right thing." When it comes to pro bono contributions, the media giant is making good on its promise.
With 60 lawyers in Southern California, NBCUniversal maintains a robust pro bono program. More than half of its in-house lawyers perform volunteer legal work, supporting a range of nonprofit organizations helping the elderly, the homeless and children in foster care or facing deportation.
"I think it's critically important for companies like ours to give back to the communities in which they operate," said Kimberley Harris, who was named general counsel of the company, which is owned by Comcast Corp., in July. A former partner at Davis Polk & Ward­well, Harris worked in the White House Counsel's Office from 2010 to 2012, most recently as deputy counsel and deputy assistant to the president.
The company employs three pro bono coordinators — Jennifer Dominitz and Shannon Alexander for the West Coast, and Daniel Kummer in the East. The coordinators' job is to identify a broad range of pro bono opportunities that might be of interest to in-house lawyers.
Dominitz, who is senior vice president and chief counsel, production, said that pro bono builds morale in two ways. "First, the work is extremely rewarding — what lawyers get out of it is almost always far greater than the amount of time and effort put in," she said. "Second, people get a chance to work side by side with colleagues in different areas and with whom they may not otherwise have much work-related interaction. This encourages team-building [and] mentoring."
NBCUniversal's lawyers in Southern California work in the TV Entertainment Legal Group, and most are divided into specific practice groups including legal affairs, production-legal and litigation. More than half of NBCUniversal's 200 lawyers participate in the pro bono program, and Dominitz said the goal is to achieve 100 percent participation.
The reception among lawyers to the program has been "uniformly positive and enthusiastic," Dominitz said. "Many people think that, once you leave a law firm, pro bono is not a possibility. In fact, there are many opportunities that are suitable for in-house counsel, and we have the amazing support of our leaders who, themselves, are very involved in pro bono, and who very much encourage and recognize people's participation."
NBCUniversal's pro bono partners include Public Counsel, which is the public interest law firm of the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills bar associations, as well as the Southern California affiliate of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
"NBCUniversal's legal department is by far one of the most active in pro bono," said Hernán Vera, Public Counsel's president and chief executive officer. "We've been fortunate to work with their attorneys on consumer issues, real estate transactions for nonprofits and small-business clinics. I can think of few departments more worthy" of recognition.
The company also works with public interest law firm Bet Tzedek, which is based in Los Angeles. Lawyers from NBCUniversal have assisted the elderly with drafting powers of attorney and health care proxies, and families to appoint conservators for developmentally disabled children who are turning 18.
Another partner is the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children's Rights, which works on behalf of impoverished and abused children. NBCUniversal lawyers have assisted with foster care adoptions and special education advocacy.
Lawyers are not limited to working with certain organizations, Dominitz stressed — they can also seek approval for pro bono projects that they've identified on their own.
The idea, she said, is for the program to be "broad and inclusive — it allows people to do work that is personally meaningful to them."
The pro bono coordinators try to make it easy to handle the extra work, focusing on "finding opportunities that are easily accessible," and providing on-site training and clinics, she said.
The company gives its lawyers credit for doing pro bono work, and managers "fully support people taking the time away from their desks for pro bono," Dominitz said. During staff meetings, lawyers share their pro bono experiences and are publicly recognized by management for their efforts.
GC Harris credits former general counsel Richard Cotton for spearheading NBCUniversal's pro bono program. Cotton, who served as general counsel from 1989 to 2000 and from 2004 until 2013, has become senior counselor for intellectual property protection, working on anti-piracy policy and advocacy. But he got his start as a lawyer doing indigent defense work in New Hampshire, and carried that commitment with him through the years.
In 2010, NBCUniversal was recognized by the Los Angeles County Bar Association for its pro bono work.
Under Cotton, Harris said, "the pro bono program at NBCUniversal became one of the best in the industry, and our team should be proud of their efforts.…I have every intention of continuing — and building on — the existing program."
KEYS TO SUCCESS
• Build and empower your team. A leader is ­exactly as strong as her team, so I believe in ­identifying the best person for the job and then ­giving them the support — and freedom — they need to succeed.
• Listen. When it comes to developing the right strategy, dialogue almost always beats monologue.
• Look at the whole picture. It's essential that the legal strategy complements the long -term business interests of the company.
• Value team work. Collaboration, collegiality and cooperation are essential for shared success.
• Give back. Corporate responsibility is important, and giving back to the community is essential.
— Kimberley Harris, general counsel