Editor's Note: Because Stellar Women in e-Discovery operates on its own publication schedule, you may notice an episode or two missing, or appearing out of order, in our blog coverage of the show. To ensure you don't miss any insights, find Stellar Women in your favorite podcast app and follow along to catch each episode as it airs.
Stellar Women was excited to welcome Susan Wortzman back to the podcast. In April, guest co-host JC Steinbrunner and I chatted with Susan and Michael Lalande from MT>3 on the importance of allyship. Catch up on that conversation here.
In this episode, Susan and I discussed her journey—from starting her own business after overcoming the fear of going out on her own to handling a merger with a larger entity. We also talked about gender norms that persist today, and why we have to change the narrative about female leaders in this field.
Head of MT>3
Mary Rechtoris: Hey, Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rectories. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech. Today, we have Susan Wortzman from MT>3, a division of McCarthy Tetrault. Susan, thanks for joining me today. How are you?
Susan Wortzman: I'm good. I'm ensconced in my work-from-home office and keeping busy.
MR: Definitely. How's it going working from home? What week is it? I don't even know.
SW: Week 13, 14? It’s good. We’re pretty much set up to work from home. The technology part works other than the interesting joy that we had trying to get us both connected on this call. But, generally, it all works. I think the bigger challenge for people is getting used to being at home, the lack of socialization, and not being able to work that closely with our colleagues.
MR: Listeners, just so you know, that was probably user error on my part. I'm not the most tech savvy person. So, Susan, I’d love to talk to you about MT>3. So, you started your business after being a litigator about 13 years ago, is that correct?
SW: That's right. I had been a commercial litigator for many years. I was a partner at a firm and I was the practice group leader for the commercial litigation group. Having established that practice, and the years of experience as a litigator, gave me the background that I needed to support other lawyers and law firms for their discovery matters. I had conducted long trials involving like tens of thousands of records mostly securities litigation and class actions. While I was challenged by my work, I wanted to start my own law firm, and e-discovery was just a logical niche practice area that didn't exist in Canada at the time.
MR: You're based in Toronto. And, when you started MT>3, there were e-discovery firms in the US, but you were the first of its kind in Canada.
SW: Yes. So, we were the first law firm in Canada devoted to e-discovery and data governance at the time. This was early days in the US too. There were a few firms, but mostly in Canada there were vendors that were offering e-discovery services, mostly on the technical side. So my firm, which was called Wortzman’s at the time, was intended to complement the technical side by providing more services on the legal advisory side. It was designed not to compete with existing providers, but to provide a neutral advisor to clients on the best practices and best tools that were available. I think that really helped us at the outset—our neutrality appealed to our clients. Because we weren't really selling anything, we could assess and advise them. We were sort of the super users of the products that existed in the marketplace. Not being the seller gave us added credibility in addition to all the discovery experience that we had. That was what made the firm so successful in its early years.
MR: Being the first of its kind presents opportunity. But there's some challenges, right? You don't necessarily have a clear playbook on how to get from A to B. So how did you go about establishing your business?
SW: I wouldn't say that we had what we call the playbook at the time, but we did have a business plan. We had a budget and we identified key clients that I wanted to work with. We had a plan for the workflow and a business model for the firm. So, it’s like every other startup: we began with very low overhead and scaled using teams of contractors and slowly building and growing our core team. I was also fortunate enough to have one large client from my litigation days who moved their e-discovery work to MT>3 out of the gate, which was a good starting ground. I was involved in Sedona and I had worked on a lot of multijurisdictional litigation matters. I have good friends in the US who started e-discovery firms and they were very supportive and provided a ton of advice to me. The other interesting component to my playbook was meeting with other connections that I had from the business community to get advice about marketing, setting up a law firm, and the financial/operational side of running a law firm. I reached out to businesspeople and I collected and capitalized on all of the resources that I had who had expertise in different areas. Because then, all of a sudden, I'm not just a lawyer, I'm marketing and I'm the HR department. I'm the finance department. So I had to put that all together to start the firm.
MR: Looking back now, or maybe if you're talking to someone that's contemplating going out on their own, what's the single piece of advice you would impart?
SW: I'm not going to stick to a single piece. The first thing is to do something that you love and that you are passionate about. And the second, which may sound odd, is to think about what failure looks like. If you're going to start your own business, think about the worst-case scenario, which is what I did. The worst-case scenario for me was that I started my business and then it failed. Somehow, I had to find a way to get my head around that and have a backup plan for what I would do after that or how I would respond to that. When I did that, all that fear went away. Then, the startup is less daunting. Once I got to the place where I thought, “Well, the worst-case scenario is this doesn't work and I'll need to move on to the next thing,” then I could launch with excitement. Someone actually gave me that advice and it made a big difference to my ability to take the leap of faith and launch my own firm. So I decided now this is career number two for me. I was a litigator and I was a partner at a firm before starting my own e-discovery firm. And if it fails, I'll go to career number three. So fortunately, I haven't had to go to number three yet.
MR: What is career number three?
SW: It's a lot different now than what I would’ve done then. If I was going to start over at that time, I was commuting and I was living in two different cities. So, I decided that if the firm didn't succeed, I was going to look for work in a not-for-profit organization where I could do more to give back to the community where I lived. I don't know where that came into my mind because it would have been a complete switch of gears for me. But I think I saw this as a way to involve myself in the community where I was living with my family. I had also heard about some interesting opportunities in the nonprofit sector. So I felt that that would be a good career change. Anyway, I never had to go there.
MR: Nope. Number two is going well.
MR: Going back to MT>3, you became a part of McCarthy Tetrault in the last couple years. For listeners who may not be aware, McCarthy is a huge law firm based in Canada. Can you walk me through how that merger came to fruition?
SW: Wortzman’s had been successful in the Canadian market for about eight or nine years when I really started to think about different opportunities. I watched, with interest, all the acquisitions in the US and globally. I analyzed the many reasons for expanding my firm's platform and client base. I was thinking a lot about, why is everybody consolidating in the e-discovery provider space? I started to question whether my model was sustainable long-term or whether growth would solidify my team. Did it still make sense to be a small boutique firm advising on e-discovery? Part of it was I was seeing a lot of our law firm clients—the larger firms—building their own e-discovery tools, which also was shrinking the market. After a bunch of soul searching, I decided that the best move would be to look for other opportunities to be acquired or merged with another entity. I started to have conversations with other organizations and then the opportunity with McCarthy came during a lunch with the new CEO of McCarthy. When he heard about my plans to make a move his immediate response was, “Come join McCarthy.” Within days, I was in a meeting with the firm's director of innovation. We spent a Sunday mapping out a plan and deciding what it would look like to have my team and McCarthy merge. This was precipitously a really good time for the firm, because it had been considering outsourcing their e-discovery needs. Everything moved really quickly, and it came as a bit of a surprise to them and a bit of a surprise to me. And so quickly, with an expedited due diligence process, we just agreed to pull the trigger and go ahead. What was interesting about it was that we were trying to make all these projections and see what it was like for my team in the firm, such as: was there going to be work if some of my law firm clients moved elsewhere? And now, looking back, it was a great fit. We've been busy nonstop. But when we were negotiating, we used the dating analogy. We've known each other for a long time, for years, because McCarthy had been a client of mine. So, it wasn't love at first sight, but it turned out to be a lasting love.
MR: Like a rom com, a love that was always there and then one day you open your eyes.
SW: Along those lines. That works.
MR: As the merger happened quickly, you did a projection of how it will work from a financial perspective as well as retaining clients. When you hear about mergers, especially with larger companies, culture comes into play.
MR: How does the culture of the larger entity merge with what Wortzman’s had that made it unique? Can you talk about how cultures came into play and where you were then and where you are now?
SW: It’s been an interesting journey. Year one, our name changed from Wortzman’s to MT>3. We really tried to blend the McCarthy team with our team during the early days. I didn't really know a lot about change management. The acquisition happened so quickly. But the firm was really supportive on the transition in areas like finance, HR, project management, and advising in those early months. My team was reeling. They had joined a boutique law firm and suddenly, they’re working at one of the country's largest firms, which was not what they signed up for. They didn't know if they were going to like it. Then, I think we got really lucky because we got busy so quickly. Within three months, we just ramped up and my team didn't really have as much time to worry about change management and culture. It was worrying about getting the work done. It turned out that our culture and work ethic thrived in the McCarthy environment. We quickly tripled in size and new challenges arose. And then other culture questions arose: Should we move into the McCarthy office or stay in our own office? We decided to stay in our own office, which turned out to be important for our team. We're really close and we worked really closely together. Another thing that came out [with the merger] was being nimble. When you're a small entrepreneurial firm, you’re nimble. You can quickly make decisions about buying technology. That doesn't always really work well in a larger environment. We struggled with that a little. I then quickly got the support I needed from McCarthy. They really kept us as a separate division so that we could be autonomous and make decisions. It was so successful at the firm that since then, they've created five other divisions. So, MT>3 sort of started the trend and now there are several additional divisions. We share infrastructure with these divisions. The divisions have some autonomy and they all support each other at the same time.
MR: As you're collaborating, is there a common thread showing that you’re a McCarthy entity? What unites you all?
SW: Innovation is what really ties us all together. We're all trying to offer legal services in a different, innovative way, and we're all working within the rubric of a law firm. We provide different solutions to clients.
MR: Shifting gears a little bit, when we chatted, you talked about what you have done in terms of empowering women and the dinners that are hosted by McCarthy. They bring in women throughout the firm at the partner or associate level. Can you talk a little bit about those and their purpose, and what you've heard from conversations?
SW: These are annual dinners that are hosted every fall at partners’ homes. They allow women to get together in a truly relaxed environment. It's really about opening up the conversations to whatever people want to talk about, whether it's about inclusivity and diversity in law or the partnership track for women. It can be all of those conversations that are sometimes really hard to raise as a young lawyer, one on one. I have hosted them for the last three years since I joined the firm. Having the opportunity for young lawyers to talk about these issues and how their careers are progressing is important for them. It’s also important for the senior lawyers and partners to offer advice and hear the concerns. We all look at the statistics and we know how many women partners there are, on average, in Canada and the US. It’s certainly not 50-50. So we ask those questions. Why is that and what can we do to change it and how can we move the needle?
MR: What are you finding that those conversations bring to light? What areas do you think can move the needle?
SW: In terms of gender equality, for example, we have to look at those mixes at different levels and different positions. We're talking about in tech and in the e-discovery world. It's actually interesting because there's a lot of senior women on the legal side involved in e-discovery, probably less on the technology side. It's always interesting to me because, years ago, I was taken aback when someone said to me that e-discovery was a natural thing for women as women are better at organizing things. And, you know, I thought hard about that. My thought was, “Is that why I went into this? I'm good at organizing things.” I really now see that it's just such a sexist way of looking at it. Assigning work and tasks to associates and saying we're always going to push women into the big document cases because they can organize documents instead of having them do important client work. It's just clearly so wrong. That statement offends me now, although I don't know that it did at the time.
MR: That stereotype gets perpetuated like that’s a woman’s task. [For example, people say,] “Women ought to take notes, or you can plan the Christmas party.” It's like, well, I'm probably the last person that should plan anything. I am so disorganized.
SW: You know, Mary, planning is just a perfect example because we as women have to be really careful to take on those tasks. We need to share them with our male colleagues and have them plan the party. Get a guy to take the notes of the meeting. At one point it was really interesting because we are teams of lawyers, project managers, and analysts at MT>3. Our analyst team was all male at one point in time. As we've integrated women into that team, the team has changed. Having diversity adds a wonderful perspective. That's been a bit of an evolution to create.
MR: Well, Susan, thanks for catching up. It’s great to talk with you and thanks for joining the podcast.
SW: Thank you so much. I really appreciate talking to you, Mary. Take care.
MR: For Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris, signing off.