Have you ever looked at the people senior to you at your firm, the partners and senior associates, and thought, “I don’t want your life!” So did former lawyer Helynn Nelson, my guest on this episode of the podcast.
Helynn landed a coveted employment litigation associate role in Biglaw, but the lifestyle of a Biglaw lawyer was simply not how she imagined spending the rest of her working life. When she got pregnant with her first daughter, she decided to make some big changes that ultimately led her to her current role as an HR professional at Google.
In this episode I’m sharing the first half of our conversation all about her journey into and out of law and eventually into HR, and in the next episode I’ll be sharing our conversation all about what her day-to-day at Google looks like, plus the incredibly cool story of how she became an accomplished sommelier.
Meet Former Lawyer Helynn Nelson
Helynn went to Tulane Law School intending to specialize in sports law. By the end of her first year, she had decided that she did NOT want to practice sports law, and had realized that the reality of the legal profession was very different from how it is often portrayed.
After she graduated, Helynn clerked for a state appellate court in Connecticut while her husband attended business school at Yale. When her husband graduated, they moved to the D.C. area, where Helynn first practiced a combination of employment and family law, and then moved to a Biglaw firm to practice employment litigation.
When she realized she wanted out of Biglaw, Helynn made the jump to recruiting and eventually to human resources.
Oh, and along the way she became a level 3 sommelier! (Tune in next week for our conversation all about that!)
In this episode, Helynn shares about:
- Deciding as a kid that she wanted to be a lawyer because of Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
- Thinking she wanted to go into sports law because of her family’s connections to pro and college basketball—then completely changing her mind after 1L year.
- How law school and the law are so much less glamorous than they are often portrayed to be.
- Not being able to find a mentor in her law firm who was actually living a life that she wanted to live, particularly when it came to motherhood—it existed, but not in ways she was willing to do it.
- The total clarity that came from getting pregnant and learning it was a girl.
- Feeling like in Biglaw her pregnancy was a problem to be solved or managed, instead of an event to be celebrated (and how different that was from other places that she’s worked).
- Why fighting against the traditional ways law is practiced in Biglaw when she didn’t see anyone who looked like her or had the life she wanted felt just as heavy as all the law school loan debt.
- Meeting a former lawyer who had started her own recruiting firm on LinkedIn while she was on mat leave and picking up some part-time work during her leave to see if she liked it.
- Deciding not to return to Biglaw and going all-in on recruiting.
- Discovering in her recruiting work how much she enjoyed the human resources aspects of the work, and deciding to get certified as an HR professional.
- What certification looked like, how it helped her, and whether she recommends it to lawyers making a similar move.
In the next episode, Helynn will share all about her day-to-day as an HR pro at Google, and all about her experience of becoming a sommelier!
Connect with Helynn:
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/seedless_somm/
- Helynn’s podcast, Wine Fault: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/wine-fault/id1515142473
Mentioned in this episode:
Listen to The Former Lawyer Podcast
TFLP 057: Employment Litigation to Human Resources Pro with Former Lawyer Helynn Nelson
Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I am your host, Sarah Cottrell, and on this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let’s get right to the show.
Hello, everyone. This week on the podcast, I’m sharing my conversation with Helynn Nelson. This is actually the first half of our conversation and I’ll share the second half next week.
Today, we talk all about how she was an employment litigator and was looking for mentors who she wanted to emulate, and essentially realized that there was no one that she could see who actually had the kind of life that she wanted and was doing the job that she was doing. So she ended up making a transition into human resources. So today we’re talking all about how she ended up in law school, how she ended up in employment litigation, and how she ultimately ended up moving into the HR space.
I’m super excited for you to hear this conversation. So we’re going to get to it in just a minute. Before we get to the conversation, I just want to remind you that this month’s What’s Next Intensive is happening on September 30th. If you’re wondering what the What’s Next Intensive is, it is a 90-minute workshop that I have designed for lawyers who know that they want to leave but have no idea what to do next.
So if you’re a lawyer who knows that you want out, but really you have no idea what your next step should be, come to the workshop and at the end of 90 minutes you will know. You can go to formerlawyer.com/intensive to register, and I hope to see you there.
Okay, here’s the first half of my conversation with Helynn Nelson.
Hey, Helynn! Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Thanks Sarah. I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
I cannot wait to hear your story because it involves lots of things that I love, including wine and being a former lawyer. Let’s start with you introducing yourself to the listeners.
Okay. Awesome. Hi, everyone. I’m Helynn Nelson. I’m a former lawyer. I usually joke and say I’m a recovering attorney. ‘Cause you never quite hang it up, and you’re always recovering in some way. But I live in Austin, Texas. When I was practicing law, I was an employment litigator.
Okay. Normally on the podcast we start where pretty much all of the stories of all of us lawyers started, which is: How did you decide to go to law school? What brought you to law school?
Sure. I was that kid probably like a lot of Type A attorneys who knew they wanted to be an attorney very early on. And so how did that happen for me and how was the seed planted? Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show! I’m an African American woman, grew up in a middle-class family in Houston, and I was just intrigued by Clair and that family in general. We all invited them into our homes on Thursday nights, and so we knew a lot about them and there were always questions after the episode about Clair in particular. So my mom was really keen on my curiosity of what Clair did for a living.
And thankfully we actually had attorneys in our family—and they always were, right? But you don’t realize that until it makes sense for you or until… So as my mom was telling me, “This person is an attorney and this is what they do and this person, this family member,” and then it just made me focus on them. Of course, set up meetings with them as a nine-year-old, have discussions about their pathway, do a little bit of shadowing, just all really age-appropriate stuff, and they were good sports and let me hang out.
That desire never left me. So from that point on, it just became a deliberate pathway towards the right major, the right LSAT score, this, that, and the third to get me where I needed to go.
Did you go straight through from undergrad to law school?
Yeah, I did. Right.
Yeah. So did I.
If I had it to do all over again and/or if I had to advise my kids if they’d listen to me, I would advise differently. I see the benefit in having a little bit of life experience and work experience before embarking. But nevertheless, yeah, I walked across the stage in June from Spelman College in Atlanta and moved into my apartment in July and started 1L camp in August.
I know you practiced in D.C. Did you go to law school in D.C. as well?
No. I left Atlanta and moved to New Orleans. So I went to Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. It was a fantastic experience, I have to say, because I think anything in New Orleans conjures up insert whatever for people. So I’ll say as an attorney, as a law student, a couple of things happened that made me decide Tulane, and this is just how I operate. I color in the lines a lot, but sometimes I don’t and I make it make sense. Right?
So I had gone on a visit and was visiting other schools of course, and my parents met me because they wanted to hang out or whatever. So we went to the casino and I mean I had the best night of my life. I was running the table. I was running the table that night. I was like, “Oh, this is a place I have to be,” and my dad’s like, “You will never step foot in here again, when you’re in law school,” which is true. I found my boundaries for sure, and I wasn’t even 21 when I went to law school.
So a lot of stuff had to wait and for all the vices and things that New Orleans could present I had my head on straight. But yeah, that was part of the story of like this… “It’s calling me. I should go to school here!” And they had a really good program at the time. I come from a family of professional and collegiate basketball players, and just saw that stuff up close with agents and contracts and things like that.
As I was figuring out what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, Tulane at the time had one of the only or certainly the best sports law certificate program and were very serious about it. So I just thought, “Okay, I want to choose this school because I’m going to be like Janie Maguire and be a sport’s agent and save all these athletes, and my brother’s going to give me his Rolodex of friends, professional players,” or whatever the case may be. I just saw an easy way to combine things that I wanted to solve in life with what I wanted to do. After 1L first semester, when you have to declare those certification pathways, I was like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do this.”
I think that it’s so common. I was going to ask you when you got to law school, was it what you expected and had been envisioning since you were nine or were there things about it that made you go, “I don’t know. I don’t know about some of this?”
Yeah. I mean, I don’t ever think it’s what you expect. The LSAT doesn’t map to law school in a really clean way. So if I were using that as a temperature check, that was a misread.
I think for all the ways that TV—which was my entrée—for TV to glorify the legal field and whatever your generation’s Clair was—Perry Mason, whatever it was—it was never that. I also went to high school during the O.J. trial, and it was on every TV ever, and in the classrooms, and live through the Johnny Cochran era and just all those things. All of the, using air quotes, “glamour” that these high profile cases presented to American consumption at the time. So that was a part of my visual.
And so no, law school was totally different. It was super cerebral. I only got to the actual practice of law—and you know, it’s not a plot twist, since I became a litigator—so part of me wanted to be up in a courtroom telling a story, being a little dramatic or whatever, and that didn’t present itself in any real way, not even in summer associate opportunities in law school. Then fast forward, when I finished law school, you don’t first chair anything out the gate, and you’re prepping things for other people to represent and that kind of thing. So no, law school was really sobering.
I think I was also surprised too, because I had friends that went to med school and other professional graduate schools, and I just felt, wow, they had more of an apprenticeship built into the study of their profession or industry. Where we stayed really cerebral, and unless you chose a pathway through class selection where you could get on your feet and practice, there weren’t really those opportunities to hear—in litigation in particular—to hear how it sounded and to be really just engrossed in it all.
Yeah, it was really interesting. Even when I graduated, I thought, “Can I do this now? Okay, so I need to pass the bar and then I’m good? Are y’all going to let me?” It was just a moment of disbelief because I literally can, and I’m a very linear thinker, so I couldn’t really connect what I had just studied for three years with now I’m going to take on clients or be a part of … Whatever the iteration of it was, however it showed up and I decided to practice, what does that look like?
I think that’s so true, and it’s very hard to communicate. People, I think before they have that experience of how maybe… I would describe it as how disconnected law school can feel from the practice of law. And I think most people do have this experience even if you have the opportunity, for example, to be in a clinic at your law school and do some hands on stuff.
I think there’s this idea in the world of lawyers that “Once you’re a lawyer, you can do anything!” And it’s true, but you don’t know how to do any of those things until you get some further instruction or mentorship. Yeah, I think that is a very common experience where you graduate and you’re like, “Well, I’m a lawyer now, I guess? I passed the bar and okay…”
So you mentioned doing employment litigation. So is that the type of work that you moved into directly after law school?
No, quite the windy-ish course. I’ll just weave life through this because that’s how it goes. Because it’s life. I met my husband in college. We dated throughout law school and long distance, and so we got engaged right before I graduated and then he had applied to and gotten into B-school at Yale in New Haven. I knew with on-campus recruiting and all of those things that, one, wherever I landed was going to be in flux because I was kind of trying to figure out what someone else was doing.
So I opted out of that. I also was leaning more towards a clerkship and it started down that pathway because it gave me a little bit of wiggle room and back to the theme of I want to see it in action. Right? I want more reps of that. So I knew that a clerkship would be my pathway. I also knew that it gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of where I took the bar and passed it versus where I set up camp for my clerkship, and it was a little more mobile, right? Windy road.
He lived in D.C. at the time, in Maryland. I knew that I wanted to take the bar there because wherever he went to B-school, we would come back there to settle. So I moved to D.C. for the summer, went to American, took my BARBRI course, studied all that, took the bar, and then that following week we loaded up a U-Haul and drove to New Haven. We’re there for… and I clerked there for an appellate state court, and it was a wonderful experience. I’m so thankful for it. Again, it gave me a lot of flexibility where I didn’t feel like I was getting a slow start out or I wasn’t as competitive as my fellow classmates that went right into law firm life. There was still that need for me to keep up and not feel like, “Okay, I graduated and I just sat around to wait to practice.” And a clerkship really teaches you how sausage is made in the most intricate, detail-oriented way. I loved it, I loved my judge, I loved the experience, and so I did that for two years.
Then we moved back to D.C. and I worked for a medium-sized law firm that was really general practice, but we had talked about an employment law practice, and me standing that up if I moonlighted in other spaces. So what were those other spaces? Family law. Oh my gosh. That was hairy and scary. But I will tell you this, in terms of the stakes that I think transferrably also show up in employment law, which is we represented employers and employees in all the firms that I’ve worked for—because I eventually got to a larger firm. There’s loss of something at stake, right? So whether it’s for family law, custody or a marriage or whatever it might be, someone’s livelihood, an employer’s reputation, money. All of those things aligned in the way that human beings reacted to them; in your representation of them, usually showed up the same.
So it gave me a lot of insight in, one, just studying humanity and being a really empathetic lawyer. I always told my husband, because family law was dicey, that if I ever saw my clients outside of the office in my normal life… I just never wanted those two worlds to collide, if that made sense. So I was like, “If I’m ever somewhere like a mall or somewhere and I run into my clients or whomever who’s involved, I’m going to have to rethink this.” I remember I used to… This is before we had kids, I would go grocery shopping at 9:00, 10:00 at night when the store was pretty vacant.
I was going down the dairy aisle and I was hitting the top of the aisle, just turning in with my cart, and I heard, “Mrs. Nelson.” So I looked at the end of the aisle and there was my client, and they made a beeline to me and we couldn’t even get another word of greeting out and they launched into, “And he did this, and…” And I was just like, “Oh God!” I left the cart with whatever was in it in the store, in the middle of that aisle, got in the car, and I was like, “Now I got to figure something out.”
Very shortly after that, I decided that I did want to focus solely on just honing my skills in employment law and applied for other opportunities. The housing crisis was happening at the time and there was a lot going on… Or mortgage crisis, I should say, was happening at the time. There was just a lot going on. There was a lot of energy in D.C. in particular, and so I ended up at O’Melveny & Myers, which is not known to be an employment litigation powerhouse, but there were just some offshoots of some of the work they were doing for mortgage clients that made sense.
Yeah, and so I ended up there. Oh gosh, I don’t even know the year. 2000, maybe six, seven. It had to be like … Yeah, maybe six, seven or eight. I was there for a little while and just really got the big firm life snapshot. It was a different world. [laughing]
Yes. Well, especially around that time. So I graduated from law school in 2008 and that was… Right around that time was when everything was… Lehman Brothers and all of that stuff was happening. So then there were… That next year, ’08 into ’09 was when a lot of bigger law firms had layoffs and whatnot. Yeah, that was an interesting time to enter that particular world.
Hey, it’s Sarah and I’m popping in here to remind you that I have created a free guide, First Steps To Leaving The Law, for anyone out there who is just like, “Ugh! This job is the worst and I need out. Where do I start?” Which, that is exactly where I was when I realized that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So you can go to formerlawyer.com/guide and sign up and get the guide in your inbox today.
And when you grab that guide, you get on my email list, which is the way I keep everyone the most up-to-date about everything that’s happening with Former Lawyer. It’s also the best way to get in contact with me because I read and respond to every email.
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So you mentioned you really liked your clerkship, which I completely understand that. My last six years of practice I worked as a staff attorney at a state appellate court in Houston.
I tell people it’s like, If you’re going to do a lawyer job, that is the job to do. It’s just very interesting and… Yes.
So when you started practicing at that first firm doing family law and employment, and then decided to move into just employment, how were you thinking about what you were doing? Were you like, “I like this and I want to do more of it”? Were you like, “I don’t like this and I’m trying to find something that fits better”? What was that experience like for you?
Yeah. It’s interesting. When one sets a goal at nine years old, [laughing] and acheives that goal at 22 or 23 and then sets out to do the thing… The thing is that, you know, the luster has worn off, there’s a little patina happening on it. And it’s interesting because at some point, I just was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and for all intents and purposes, it was decided by my pathway. But I wasn’t enamored with it, and then I had debt.
Yeah. Also, there’s a mystique too to this thing because for all the people that have been rooting for you in life, for me, for family and whatever being a lawyer looked like and meant, you don’t receive that fulfillment day one. That’s not a part of your onboarding. It’s a very symbiotic relationship like, “I pay you for a thing, you give me that high quality thing, and off you go.”
So to be fulfilled and to speak to all the other parts of me, the whole me, that shows up for work every day, just felt really void and so it felt very survivalist like, “I need to do this because this is also the thing I said I was going to do and I’m doing it. Okay. What does doing it mean, and what does doing it well look like and mean?” Then that sets you on a pathway, or me at least, on, “Okay, who’s doing it well, who’s modeling it and who could be a mentor?”
That’s also a huge thing that I have always had in my career. In my academic career as well, it’s like, “Who’s traveled the road ahead of me a couple of clicks and I can talk to them about their experience, get some download from their own learnings, et cetera?” So I’ll be honest, and this started … This was the part that told me, “I’m probably not going to be doing this a long time.” I could not find that in the law firm where I was, and it’s interesting too because I … and this matters in the legal field, right?
I was working for a California law firm that just so happened to have a D.C. office, and folks know wherever your law firm is based, that’s the culture and the tone that your law firm takes on, right? When I was in undergrad, I worked for McGuireWoods. They’re headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. It was a white shoe law firm. You did not show your shoulders, you wore stockings, you wore heels, et cetera. Right? And so, in all the ways where I chose a more laid back law firm, the practice of law—that never translated to the practice of law. It translated into the decor of the office.
[laughing] But none of that meant anything to me because it wasn’t showing up in a way that it fused itself in my life or my lifestyle. The impact that the practice of law had on my lifestyle was stifling. It was never-ending. It just felt like, “When’s the payoff? I passed the bar, I’ve jumped all these hurdles to prove that I’m in,” and I never felt a part or included. Back to wanting to find a model and a mentor, for me there wasn’t one and I can just give you all the intersections.
As a black woman, in the partner ranks? None. There were black men, very senior, older-aged black men, of counsel black men, who experienced their career differently but that were also great to learn from. So I don’t want to discount that. But I was really looking for images of me.
Also, my husband and I knew that we wanted to have a family. So I was like, “Ooh, what does motherhood look like?” As we balance all of this on our knee. It either didn’t exist or it existed in ways that I wasn’t willing to do. So it may have looked like I had kids, someone else raises them, or I have a lot of help. Some of that was the work called for that, but then there’s also a comfort and a culture around that that didn’t feel good to me. That felt like it was understood, and if there were mamas in the high ranks, that’s the way you should set it up to be successful. So I was like, “Ooh, okay. That’s an interesting signal that’s being sent.” Yeah, I just never saw me. So it just became increasingly hard to understand what it looked like.
Would I be forging just a new pathway in a very established practice and an established industry that wasn’t really maybe worth the fight? Or did I even know what the fight or the tension was going to look like in order to persist as me, but be met with all this tradition and all this, “This is the way it’s done”? That felt like a lot. That felt as heavy as the debt I was trying to pay off. At some point I just thought…
The life moment in which I decided, “I need to do something else,” was I got pregnant with my first daughter. I just thought, “Well, motherhood just shifts your access anyway,” right? Yeah, it just becomes a thing larger than anything else going on. It takes all of your focus. It just helps you prioritize and just sort life in a way that you probably just delayed or pushed in a closet, and it brings all of that to bear in a real way.
I knew that I was having a little girl and so I just thought, “What is my responsibility to her?” So it also just forces you to figure some stuff out and draw a line in the sand and understand who you are. That’s always evolving, but just make some decisions on what you are willing to do and not do, and if that little person signed up for all of that.
For all the signals and answers that I needed the legal field to give me, it just didn’t come quick enough. I’m under no illusion that the perfect whatever doesn’t exist somewhere in some law firm. I have friends who are having the best times of their life and they’ve made such a wonderful career and it just all makes sense for them. For me, I could never reconcile it, and motherhood just made me decide.
So I took maternity leave, of course. There’s a funny story with that. We were working on this big DOJ thing and I hid my pregnancy until I couldn’t. So that was one thing. I was already doing something… It was already comfortable for me to even broach at the job. So I hid my pregnancy until I couldn’t, and then I came back from some type of winter vacation with bump out. I was preparing, when I came back, where I probably should have been relaxing, for the conversation. I really had a ton of if-then scenarios for, “If someone says ‘this’ and ‘dah, dah, dah.'” I also had a lot of stories of friends who received not the best, really insensitive reactions to their motherhood and showing up at work pregnant. Anyway, it just wasn’t embraced.
I think in my mind, I led with like, “Okay, worst-case scenario, so I’m just going to be prepared to tell you how it’s going to go.” I prepared to the best of my abilities. I remember not even being happy about my pregnancy in a way that I think it should have been celebrated in a workplace. Certainly other workspaces that I’ve been in it is a celebrated thing. I just wouldn’t even allow that because I just wanted to answer all the questions and all of the subsequent conversations I knew were probably going to be had without me there. I may have been going too far with it, but whatever. But I remember saying, “And I’m going to stay until the final disposition of this.” Kind of like, “Don’t try to figure out what to do with me or whatever. I’m going to stay till the end,” which really like I … I’m not in control of when she’d show up, so how am I offering that even?
I just felt like I needed to offer something to not have people start discounting me or whatever. Then the “mommy track” thing is spoken about or just assumed. I think that’s always a thing for women who want to be moms that practice law. Whether it exists or not, you just plan for it. So anyway, that DOJ investigation ended up wrapping three weeks before for my due date, and I was really excited because I was like, “Okay, we’re not going to run up to the line. That’s good.” Then I went home that day and—little did I know—started contracting.
Of course! I was calling my mom and it was like Braxton Hicks and the whole thing. I called my mom and she was just like, “Yeah, I think the baby was just waiting for you to sit down.” [laughing] That’s what happened, and sure enough, she came three weeks early and I used the balance of my leave to really plot and plan, pro and con my way out of practicing law and talked to my husband about it, because we had a certain lifestyle that was dependent upon our salaries looking a certain way. I just said to him, “I’m not happy and don’t know what the future holds, but I know I’m a sure bet, and whatever I put my mind to, it’ll be awesome.”
And taking that time just to be still and just to be self-reflective and self-aware, it led me to a small thing that I was doing at the firm, which was reviewing resumes and helping hire contract attorneys or just sitting on hiring committees in general for associates, et cetera, and how much of that I liked. Getting to know someone through their snapshot and then bringing them on and creating that experience and all of that.
So I was like, “Ooh, recruitment.” Met a woman on LinkedIn who was also a mom, a former litigator who had a similar story, and she had started a legal recruitment firm for Am Law 100 law firms across the country. And started talking to her and she was like, “you’re going to… I don’t have a lawyer on staff besides me.” It was just part-time work, and she said, “You have a lot of credibility. You know what these people are looking for.”
So we strictly recruited partners and law practices, and I just thought, “Oh yeah, these are my people. I do know what matters for them and what they need to hear.” She’s like, “And you have to be good with rejection and people telling you no and that kind of thing, recruitment 101.” I was like, “Oh yeah, sure.” Lots of cold calling and just really interesting stuff.
So while on maternity leave, I just put my toe in that water and just said, “Yeah, send me a few requisitions and I’ll start working, then we’ll see how it feels.” Next thing you know, I decided to not go back to the law firm and it gave me a lot more time to stay at home with my daughter. Eventually we put her in daycare. Yeah, I was working part-time, commission-based so totally different pay structure, all the things, but really fulfilling work. There came a time where I wanted to go full time and just blow this thing out of the water, and her business model didn’t call for that or couldn’t handle that type of employment.
So she introduced me to some of her friends that had bigger shops, but still niche and boutique. Also, had a legal practice but maybe some other stuff that they were recruiting for. So I went to work for one of those places and it was amazing. I came in being the manager of the legal practice, legal recruitment practice, and then it blossomed into federal contracting, IT. I just wanted to dibble and dabble in a lot, and I eventually specialized in federal contracting, but it was just such interesting work.
It got me really close to people and back to what mattered to them and life-changing stuff and finding a wonderful employment opportunity that matched all the things they talked about and their skill set and what they had to offer. Yeah. I did that for a while and we worked with medium, sometimes small businesses, but mostly large companies and contractors. I was really drawn to the small and medium crowd because they were scrappy, and they wore so many hats and were so creative and they would engage us about, “Oh, find me the right talent for this open opportunity.”
I had gotten really good at giving folks what they wanted. But what I realized in the relationship aspect of the work is that, one, folks kept in touch, you became a part of them and they of you for all the reasons. And when the match was a little off or the employer oversold, underdelivered, wasn’t the experience that the employee thought, I always heard about it. It was always in a way of like, “Hey, if you ever recruit for them or you do intake or feedback from them, I just want to let you know my experience,” and that was really interesting.
I had more opportunity to bake that into the small and medium, because they were just thankful for any bit of services over what they had contracted because they could barely probably… It was a luxury to have you source talent for them anyway. I interrogated like, “Okay, what’s your org chart? What’s your business plan? What’s your onboarding plan?” And dug into… Even from a employment law compliance standpoint, like, “What are we doing with all of this? How are you structuring your business?” Or, “As your business goes from mom-and-pop to scaling overnight, are you prepared to do that?”
I just remember being really, really drawn to that type of work and wanting to monetize it. So I went back to the owners of the company to say, “Hey, this is worthwhile stuff to our clients. We should offer it,” and they were really firm on, “No, we just recruit. That’s what we do.” I just even thought from a business conversion standpoint, it could mean a lot if we were doing that thing.
So that actually led me to, “Okay, what about HR do I know or not know?” I kind of back into it, right? Because my introduction into HR, if we reverse from employment law, is really maybe poor decisions, misunderstood decisions on employee or employer’s worst day defining my role in their life, and maybe that not being who they really are or what… Anyway, and I thought…
Well, let me say this, I always liked the compliance side of what I was doing when I was practicing. I became a little less enamored with litigation because at times I just felt like a hired gun and I couldn’t really connect to the humanity of it all. It just felt very much rote and scripted out and not creative. I always thought, “Wow. If we can employ proactive measures to whomever through trainings, through whatever, through getting in there and looking under the hood and stuff like that, maybe everyone would be better for that, and law firms would probably lose money, but that’s okay.” Right? It’s about teaching human beings and conditioning human beings to be better all the way around.
That’s what I liked about this particular work. It opened my mind and my eyes up to HR as a discipline, and all of how it influenced the end of the pipeline that I was on and very much accustomed to. Just how you had a lot of leeway, depending on your role at the company, to influence how work was done and how employees experienced work. That was really important to me.
So anyway, I thought I was going to get another master’s degree and my husband was like, “No.” So I talked to an executive coach friend of mine and he was like, “No, I think you’re good with the JD and experience in employment law. I think you should just do a certification.” So I tried to get my employer to pay for that. That was a no go, and so we just paid for it, my family and I, and made it happen. I took courses and took tests and got certified and then came back to my employer like, “Look, look, Ma! We can charge for this. Someone’s kind of an expert. Or has some body of knowledge,” and they were interested, but I think I had outgrown the role by then and wanted to get more in house and not be a consultant.
So then that led me to the role I had before the one I have now, where I was managing HR and ops for a D.C. government agency, very much in charge of setting policy and writing the rules of engagement and rehauling systems and ways that we engaged and ways that we marketed ourselves as an employer of choice, et cetera. And really getting into HR full circle and realizing how recruitment and a lot of these things talk to one another and are very deliberate and key components of having a well-rounded HR shop within your company.
Now fast forward, I know I’m leaving out wine a lot. We can rewind into that, but then with the move to Austin, I needed to kind of reset. I’m always one to look for challenges if it makes sense, if I am looking for employment, and one of those challenges presented itself in one of the bigger industries or growing industries here in Austin, which is tech. And a lot of the Silicon Valley big names had some type of outfit in Austin. It’s not a secret anymore that Austin… What do they call it? Silicon Hills or something like that, where everyone’s expanding out of the Bay for various reasons, and I just thought that was interesting.
In talking to friends and reducing my list to different companies that aligned with my own personal values, I settled on Google and an opportunity that they had, and the rest is history. So now I support the Austin site and people operations for Google. What that means is I’m HR for HR. So a lot of my… I don’t practice law anymore, but you never shut that side of your brain off. So in terms of coming to work with and receiving work through a risk lens and all of the things that are baked into everything I do or did as a lawyer definitely shows up at work, and our employment legal team’s really happy about that.
I’m sure. I’m sure. It’s always helpful when there’s someone who can understand the legal implications.
Can we go back talk a little bit about this certification? Because I think if someone’s listening and they’re thinking, “Oh, some of the stuff about HR and maybe the recruiting piece, that sounds really interesting.” One, what sort of timeline, time commitment was the certification, from the time that you decided that you wanted to get it to actually receiving it? Then I would imagine people might be wondering, “Is that something that’s necessary? If I’m interested in potentially moving in the direction of HR, do I need to go get some sort of certification?” Or how does that function in terms of-
Sure. I think the most time-bound part of that transition was honestly waiting for a course offering. Once I had made up my mind, it’s like, “Okay, what time of year is this going to be offered? At what cadence does this body…” So I chose Society for Human Resource Management or SHRM as the organization that I wanted to receive a certification from. I did that because I started looking at HR, just setting a search agent on—I don’t think we use CareerBuilder anymore, but whatever—CareerBuilder and Monster, and that search agent would return job profiles and descriptions that matched whatever I was looking for. So I just got really familiar with their preferred qualifications and minimum qualifications, and all of them said, “Certification! Certification!” So I was like, “Okay.” A lot of times the certification could sub out four years of experience, which was important as well because if someone didn’t see the connection between employment law and what I was trying to do, the certification could be a nice little bridge and folks were asking for it at the time.
So time-wise from the moment I’d figured out this is the pathway to when I tested and received it, was probably six months. Again, that’s waiting for testing to open up, waiting for the class to be offered. The class itself was about a month and a half on Saturdays. We met once a week on Saturdays for four hours. Yeah, for a month and a half. Then that prepared you, gave you materials, et cetera, to do a little self study and then set your date for your exam. That was it.
Are certifications necessary? I would say if you’re trying to transition into HR, if you intend… I made a mid-career shift. So it was important for me not to show up entry level on anybody’s radar because that’s not realistically where I was at all. I was also not trying to circumvent years of experience or stripes that people had earned who were true practitioners with my fast track approach, right? Because once you got the job, you needed to show up with integrity and know how to do the job.
So I didn’t want to oversell either, but I wanted this unique portfolio that I was presenting to translate and to give me credit for what I had been doing before. To that end, I think a certification got me there. The certifications look the same now. There’s a more junior one and then there’s a senior one. So I took the senior one and I just cast my net wide and long, with the hopes that with the course that I took to prepare and study for it, plus my own experience, that those two things, that unique combination could qualify for senior. Then I just let the exam tell me if that was true or not through passing.
So I did and I realized—I’ll be honest—overnight, once I got that certification and slapped it on LinkedIn and my resume, there was a different conversation. That immediately meant that to someone in the industry or who was reviewing my resume that this person has been vetted by a professional organization that confers this distinction. So it just really started the conversation from a place of warmth and understanding and knowing, than than not having the certification and trying to make people see the light through a law degree and some practice years.
Yeah. I think that makes total sense.
That’s a wrap on my conversation with Helynn for this week. Tune in next week where Helynn will be sharing what her day-to-day looks in her HR role at Google, and then we dive into a completely new segment of her story, which we only briefly mentioned so far, which is the fact that she became a sommelier while she was also going through this other career transition to HR.
So I’ll see you next week. Have a great week.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to download my free guide, First Steps To Leaving The Law, at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.