Leader Profile of Cynthia Brown: Collaboration is Key to Creative, Innovative KM

Three Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals were honored this year as part of the 2020 Fastcase 50 —Cynthia Brown, Andre Davison, and Diana Koppang. Thanks to all of them for being such great representatives of law firm librarians. This week, we have been publishing profiles on each of the honorees. This profile is on Cynthia Brown Senior Director of Research Services, Littler Mendelson

Fastcase 50 profile:

Cynthia BrownSenior Director of Research Services, Littler Mendelson

“It’s no overstatement to say Cynthia Brown is the epitome of a forward-thinking librarian leader in BigLaw’s ever-evolving push to stay ahead of research and knowledge management technology. As Senior Director of Research Services at Littler Mendelson, Cynthia’s impressive track record includes starting the firm’s legislative tracking project, as well as a digital “Knowledge Desk” that helps the firm’s many attorneys easily interface with expert librarians and the vast knowledge management resources at Littler’s disposal. In response to COVID-19 Cynthia and her team pivoted to develop a vast array of constantly-updated and public-facing employer fact sheets that have been used by businesses across the country. Cynthia has demonstrated that legal services can be more than billable hours, and that information professionals in the firm can create new, data-driven legal services for clients”

Profile by Linda-Jean Schneider, Manager of Digital Access, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP

In these uncertain times with threats to a stable personal and professional existence, we in the legal information profession can often look to our colleagues for support and inspiration. I highly recommend spending time finding out what makes others in our field ‘tick,’ and how they found their way; much like reading biographies of others, it can inspire and motivate us to find our own path. The interview I recently conducted with Cynthia Brown of Littler Mendelson for this OFG profile provided such an occasion for me. She shared numerous insights and experiences that have created and solidified her role as a leader in the profession. Her experience is an example of how elevating our levels of service to not only meet, but to exceed expectations, can expand our ability to thrive and survive.

Cynthia is Senior Director of Research Management at Littler–a position she assumed early in 2020 after 13 years in various positions in the firm’s Library and Research operation, now part of its Knowledge Management Group. In this role, Cynthia continues to lead an exceptionally focused effort to provide essential KM support for the major labor and employment-focused firm, and to motivate and lead her staff to exceed their own expectations and those of the firm. She considers this responsibility to be the rewarding culmination of her career.

Why did you pursue a career as a legal information professional?

Cynthia’s early years in the field — first as a law student and then as a legal information provider representative — drew Cynthia toward her specialization in law firm legal information management. She discovered that the private law firm provides the environment where she feels she can have an impact and be most effective. The chance to be engaged and involved in a profession dominated by talented, collaborative colleagues, with opportunities to excel while learning and contributing to advances in legal research, was irresistible to her.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Some professionals when asked this question will focus on opportunities for advancement, the chance to expand their network, or even acquiring specific skills that could take them into another field. Cynthia names the opportunities for collaboration, flexibility, and mutual support among the firm’s administrative levels to be high points for her. She has been encouraged to identify new ways to directly integrate the research and content her team uncovers into the firm’s work-product, which provides a sense of being directly engaged in the success of the firm.

What is your leadership style?

Cynthia focuses on being collaborative to give people the room to be creative and innovative, and constantly strives to provide opportunities for each of the staff to use their skills. Rather than criticizing idea or proposals that might seem likely to fail, she will ask her team: “How can we do it better?” She steers the team away from any frustration with the often labor-intensive or limiting projects to other opportunities that allow them to look beyond those limitations. Cynthia finds this approach nurtures the innovation and creativity required by the changing demands of the practice of law.

What is an obstacle you encountered, and how did you handle it?

Cynthia’s leadership style was key to how she handled one of her largest challenges in 2015, when back-office operations for several firm administrative departments were re-located from San Francisco to Kansas City, MO.  Everyone in the existing ‘Library’ staff received offers to remain with the firm with that move, and Cynthia worked with firm administration to retain those positions without losing a beat. Her impressive Linkedin profile cites “successfully mov(ing) full Research Department from San Francisco, California to Kansas City, Missouri” as significant in her listed experience. She found constant communication and encouragement for staff enabled them to “make it work,” and has continued to foster extensive communication and staff support through the intervening years until the pandemic crisis hit earlier this year.

They faced new challenges to which they responded by deploying existing KM     and tracking tools and applications to produce carefully curated relevant information to feed into existing AI systems. As many of us in private firms experienced, the increased demand for extensive research and number of time- sensitive requests was almost a welcome distraction from the external pervasive crises. To provide that high level of curated content and excellent service delivery to the firm and its clients is an endeavor over which the KM and Research staffs have some control. Chief among the work-product was the production and maintenance of an Employer’s Handbook, and the creation of ‘toolkits’ for the myriad of requests from practitioners and clients. All of the library’s work was facilitated by the use of Service Now and existing internal tools and applications.

 How do you fit your professional association commitments into your busy schedule?

Cynthia finds her involvement in professional activities contributes tremendously to her success at the firm and her sense of accomplishment in the profession. As examples, she highlights the value of her attendance at the 2016 AALL Leadership Academy that solidified her focus on her law librarianship career, and her participation on the Editorial Board of the AALL Spectrum, where she is now serving her second term. Cynthia co-Chaired the 2020 PLLIP SIS Summit with Christine Sellers Sullivan in Summer 2020, and found the pivot to a virtual format brought both challenges and rewards. The latter included connecting with the impressive Keynote speaker, Ari Kaplan, and another galvanizing presenter, Alycia Sutor, who both provided outstanding presentations. Having such exceptional speakers on the program enhanced the virtual experience for the entire Summit, and contributed to its overall ‘home run’ success.

Who inspires you?

Cynthia attributes much of her motivation, inspiration, and hard-working management style to her parents, both of whom were managers in their respective fields.

Cynthia seems to personify library professionals’ ability to find satisfaction and rewards in the extensive collaboration and support opportunities our roles offer. Without a doubt, her generous and open-minded approach to professional duties and challenges exemplifies what draws so many to our field and makes law librarianship a worthwhile professional pursuit.

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