Becoming A Level 3 Sommelier with Helynn Nelson (TFLP 058)

Hobbies and side hustles can seem like a distraction when you’re on the law firm treadmill. But cultivating interests outside the law is often the ticket to figuring out what you really want to do career-wise. In this episode, Helynn Nelson shares about becoming a level 3 sommelier—and how it helped her figure out that she wanted to leave the law, and what she wanted to look for next.

Becoming a level 3 sommelier with Helynn Nelson

If you haven’t yet, make sure you listen to episode 057, where Helynn shared all of the details about how she went from an employment litigation associate in Biglaw to working in human resources at Google.

In this episode, Helynn shares about:

  • What her day-to-day in human resources at Google looks like.
  • Becoming increasingly disenchanted with the practice of law, and wanting an out.
  • Traveling to South Africa with her husband, falling in love with the wine, and opening a business together intending to import South African wine.
  • Volunteering to be the one to learn more about wine so that someone could knowledgeably construct their company’s portfolio.
  • Progressing through the levels of certification, culminating with level 3 certification, which involved a year of classes and a 3 day exam.
  • Feeling like she had to hide her pregnancy at the law firm, but that it was a superpower when it came to identifying wine by its nose.
  • Getting to the point where having an outside interest that was supported by her legal career—wine and pursuing her certification as a sommelier—was the only way to make it feel worthwhile.
  • Sitting for the level 3 exam three weeks after her daughter was born—and passing.
  • Pivoting from importing to consulting because of the priority shifts of motherhood.
  • What she got from the world of wine that she didn’t get from the legal world.
  • The experience of friends who have stayed in the law and are at the pinnacle of their legal careers, questioning whether it’s actually sustainable and looking for an exit.
  • Why (and how) you should surprise yourself when it comes to your career.

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Episode Transcript

TFLP 058: Becoming A Level 3 Sommelier with 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 the second half of my conversation with Helynn Nelson. Last week, she shared about her journey from the law to working as an HR professional. And this week she's sharing all about the details of her day-to-day life working in HR at Google, and also she's sharing all about how she became a level 3 sommelier, including how she took the three-day level 3 exam three weeks after her first daughter was born. It's a really interesting conversation. Helynn has a lot of wisdom to share. I'm super excited for you to hear it.

One quick note, the audio quality is not the best. Something went a little bit sideways towards the end of the conversation, but I think the quality of the conversation more than makes up for it. 

Just a quick reminder, the next What's Next Intensive—which is a 90-minute live workshop to help you identify what your next step should be if you're a lawyer who wants to leave and just isn't sure what to do next—is happening on September 30th, which is a little bit over a week from now. You can go to for more info and to register.

Okay, let's get to the second part of my conversation with Helynn.

So, tell me what a typical day or week for you right now in your role at Google looks like. Or maybe not right now, right now since we're currently in COVID times, but also maybe that too.


Yeah. So I'm what's considered frontline HR. So I'm very much in front of people. My clients are individual contributors, so non-people managers, people managers, and teams, and peppered into that also are more senior folks like directors and VPs who need support. They need a trusted advisor to help them navigate the employment space. And so that can lend itself and we do more of... My team does more of consultative work. And so our approach is: employee comes to us with some type of concern. You know, we're kind of triaging that concern in our mind based on our experience or the resources and support that we offer and then partnering with that individual on the solve, whatever that might be.

And so it can go from workplace concerns, really hairy stuff, interpersonal conflict to alignment with more of our cyclical programs that any employer has like employee engagement, surveys, performance evaluation periods throughout the year, things like that. 

So, as you can imagine, in tech: very data-driven work overlaid with kind of the personal empathetic touch. And so no two days are the same. It's hard to give kind of a typical day, but at some point I'm meeting with teams or an individual to understand a concern of theirs that can sometimes be categorized as a crisis, depending on what's going on with them in their lives, their personal lives or professional lives.

Or it can be quite proactive work where a reorg is going to happen. And we need to work in partnership with a few other teams in order to do adverse impact analysis and understand current state and future state and how that aligns with business needs, et cetera. And if this has a global component to it as well, and who's my global counterpart that's sitting in Ireland or Japan or Singapore, wherever, that can offer the same amount of support and kind of putting that project team together to make that solution happen. So, no two days are the same in any way that an employee experiences Google. We very much have a hand in that and take that to heart and very seriously.


That sounds really interesting. There's this whole other part of your story that we've only briefly mentioned, but haven't actually talked about that I'm super excited to dive into. And I don't really know where to start other than to say, I know that you're a sommelier.




Did I say that correctly?


Yes, you did. Nailed it!


And I know that happened at some point during this process. I think it was before you moved to Austin, is that right?


That's right. Right. So I've been a level 3 sommelier for eleven years. And if you're doing math that about lines up with the age of my first daughter, my oldest daughter. I have two, an eleven year old and a six year old. And so the story about that is as I was becoming more kind of disenchanted with the practice of law, what will hold my attention, even if I have to just come in and punch a clock is something I'm passionate about that I'm doing outside of work. Right? And to some degree that I've reconciled in my mind that work is enabling. I can do that thing because this check pays for that. Right? Which is honestly a really pricey trade-off. So there's that. I'm saying it very lightly, but it's a pretty heavy trade off. But I was trying to find a little delight in my life and my husband and I met some of his B-School friends and another friend's grad school friends who were from South Africa, sent here to be educated or came to the States for their graduate degrees and moved back.

And so classmates that were saying, "Hey, you got to come to my hood sometime." And so we finally put a trip together and went to South Africa for two weeks, started in Joburg, worked our way to Cape Town and all points in between and had the most amazing experience. And my husband and I prior to that traveled extensively, drank wine, et cetera, but never really paid attention to it. It was just kind of always there. And just had a really magical experience in South Africa that overlaid with seeing wineries and vineyards owned by Africans was super impactful for me, especially given the history of South Africa. And then couple that with tasting good wine, just all the things were just mind blowing. And I'm sure at some point they were like, "Okay, Americans, catch up! We're doing stuff over here."

So anyway, this was around 2007. And so we were meeting with a lot of government officials because this is who our friends either worked with or were around that were their friends. And so I always say they gave us a backstage pass to South Africa because we were just getting just a lot of detail and a lot of ways that we moved around the country was really VIP. So anyway, we were talking to them and they said "Wow, you like the wines a lot." Because it came to a point we just like, "How much can we take back?" Or "Where can we find these in the States?" And they're like, "You can't." And we were like, "Something's up with that." And so, over dinner one night it led to a conversation about importing South African wines.

And we were going to stand up a company to do that. And Nelson Mandela when he was president of South Africa planned to reconstitute—whomever, he wasn't present at the time—but South Africa was to be reconstituted in 2010. And so there was a lot of promise from a business and economic perspective of what that meant. I think president Clinton had the BEE and a lot of other... so there's just like a lot of—or AGOA—a lot of energy around South Africa and its new beginning. 

And anyway, we loved that story. And so we took what we could get back into the country, what we were allowed and always did it with the understanding that we would come back and one, pick our portfolio for what we wanted to import and just stand up this thing that started over a dinner conversation. And came back to the States, put some partners together, raised capital, told everybody the same story.

And in doing that, as we were standing it up, we were like, "Ooh, someone may need to go to one of these wine classes or something to figure out what we're tasting and kind of start on a pathway of palate development so we can go back. And when we do construct our portfolio, know good stuff from”—what I say—“'dog water,' right?" You know, "Is this something that people would want to buy?" "I don't know. It tastes good to me." "Why?" That kind of thing. So I was not having a great experience professionally and just wanting something else to do. And so I was like, "I'll do it."

And I researched at the time, one of two accredited bodies in North America to confer the sommelier diploma. Not with the understanding that I would be a somm at all. Just like, "Who's in the States? What's reputable that we could slap on a website once we get going? And where are these classes offered?" 

And so the course was offered through The Art Institute. The International Sommelier Guild was renting space out of The Art Institute. And the time of the classes, when they started actually worked out really well for when my day ended. And it also happened to be on the Metro stop closest to my law firm. And so it all just kind of worked. And I just took the first 101 class and it was awesome. And there were like 23 students from gardeners to retirees, a nice little mix of industry folks. And it was really like, "This is a table grape, this is a wine grape," very 101.

And I had an awesome time in that class. It was amazing. And so I thought, "Okay, I'll take the next one." And went back. And at the time my husband and our other partner was just like, "Okay, do we have what we need?" I was like, "Hmm, let me see. We may need to learn a little more." So I went on and the class head count dropped by a lot because it started to define what was hobby from what was kind of serious study. And I met more industry people in the second offering. The tests got a little more intense. The blind tastings were now present and it really got really serious, right?

Even the talk of like, "Are you all going to keep going on to the next section?" And that was the somm, the third and final was the somm distinction. So from two to three ISG, you had to be invited to sit for the third part. And it was a big deal that you were in industry because ISG wanted to... if they were to put their stamp on you, you're benefiting the industry that they're in.

And so it was myself and a plastic surgeon, Mitch, that were not industry by the time we got to the third part. But we had the same instructor throughout, which was amazing, which was also very odd. And it was also odd that the three levels would be offered in succession because there were folks that I met in level 2 that went on with me, who had waited like three years for that level to be offered again. So all of this was very shooting star, lightning, whatever, for this all to be happening. 

And also these folks become your study buddies and part of your family. And so part of it is just like, "You're going on, right? Helynn, you're doing it!" I was like, "Yeah, I'm doing it. Yeah. I'm with you all, sure!" But I didn't need a lot of convincing. I was completely smitten with wine and its complexities. And I think it just mirrored... wine itself mirrored a lot about my life. I could go on and on about the symbolism of wine and the metaphor that is wine and winemaking. 

So needless to say, with a couple of letters or statements of support I presented all of my scores and those statements to the ISG board and was green lit to sit for the third and final part. And when my instructor Phil called and said, "You're in! Welcome to class, we're going to start sending you emails about when we're going to get started, et cetera," we had just found out that we were pregnant. And so I actually told my wine instructor before I told our parents, anybody. Because I was like, "I have to keep going! And I just want to make sure you all are cool with this." And he said, he was like, "I don't know, you're a lawyer, sign something to say you won't harm your kid. And I don't have a problem if you don't, you're responsible,” and this, that, and the other. And I was like, "Okay, great, okay. This doesn't stop that. Okay. Great."

And so that was a full year of course study where everything else was probably for three to six months, somewhere in there. This was a full year of just kind of hunkering down and all of the... it felt like the bar exam. It was a three-day exam with setting up service, writing a business plan, blind tastings, multiple choice essay, everything you could imagine. 

And I was pregnant, very pregnant. I remember there were times when I would come off the elevator, come up the elevator and make a right into the classroom. And as soon as I got off the elevator, someone had corked the bottle of wine. I could immediately go like, "Oh, Pinot Noir 1990." You know, whatever, like the specs down.

It was just interesting to have the experience of what I described in hiding my pregnancy at work, to it being like this superpower afterwards and my classmates or teammates saying like, "No fair!" I was like, "Sense of smell." I was like, "She kicks one for Cabernet. She kicks twice for Pinot." But it was so much fun. 

And I recall when we received our dates for our final, you won't believe... Anyway, my life is all about signs and how they make sense or whatever. But the beginning date of our tests or our final was my due date. And I was like, “You are kidding me!” And then it became wheeling and dealing. 

Part of it was me understanding everyone came over from Europe to proctor the exam, the board. And so the way that they were going to move throughout the States was like, start in New York at the site there, come to DC or Virginia, move on to... So on and so forth, and work their way to the West Coast. So I remember talking to my teacher and he was like, "Okay, so then you would just have the baby and just fly to California or something in time to sit with that group." And I was like, "No, I want to sit with my squad! These are the people"—at this point, we were at each other's homes all the time. 

There was a Whole Foods that they had just built that had the wine on tap, that was a new thing. And we would hole up at that Whole Foods. They knew us, they would give us free wines. Some of my classmates of course worked at some of the finest restaurants in DC. We would all show up when the restaurant closed and study and whatever people didn't finish... Anyway. So yeah, it was a crazy kind of thing to consider. 

Anyway, needless to say, she came three weeks earlier, like I mentioned earlier. And so everything just aligned and yeah, I was nursing her, my husband stayed downstairs the whole time, all three days. And on breaks, I would nurse her. I was sitting on a donut. It was just like, not cute, but we got it done.


Yeah, I'm envisioning doing something like that, you know, two or three weeks after giving birth. And that is intense.




So this is a question I wanted to ask you. Although, do you have more you want to say about that?


No, I mean, yeah I started a consulting company because motherhood kind of derailed importing and moving to South Africa or going back and forth. And I actually had a friend that I was introduced to through another friend who had started a similar company. And she had a really candid conversation with me and just in terms of my understanding of business in the States and there, and she's like, "You're probably going to want to be on the ground." And I was like, "Ooh, life, isn't set up for that yet. We got a lot going on here." 

And so we just made a little pivot into consulting because I kind of started doing that lightly through just during the study portion of becoming a somm and had developed relationships and saw a need there to work with existing restaurants to rehab their wine lists. Or new restaurants to construct their wine list, to work with their chefs, to go into private homes and do cellar management or private parties, et cetera.

And so that's kind of how it all started in DC, and anywhere else I've been since then (insert Austin) has been, you know, I can immediately plug into the community here. It's easy for me to find wine folks very quickly and also to make that consulting company portable and always kind of keep it as an extension of what I'm doing. Google lets me, through an employee resource group, lets me do a little wine stuff at work too. The best place to work. They continue to really amaze me in ways that I do get to show up whole self. And that feels really good. But yeah, I'll let you ask your next question. I can go on and on.


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 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. So, if you are ready to figure out what's next for you, go to, download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, and get started today.

So the question that I wanted to ask was, you said you started getting into this because you needed some delight in your life and you weren't really happy at the law firm. And ultimately you ended up making a shift to something else professionally in addition to moving through this whole process. And I'm wondering, in your mind, which sort of came first? Was it sort of that exploring this whole world of wine, did that make you more open to other things professionally that ultimately got you onto the HR path? Or was it just another symptom of what you described as the reality of being at the law firm and knowing, "This isn't really the place for me. I don't feel like I can bring my full self to work."


Yeah. I think it's the latter or some combination of the two. This whole concept of whole self is really interesting because I'm really decided as a professional now that you should never deny a part of yourself when you intend to contribute meaningfully in any space. If you want to make impact, if you want to give of your talents and your time in any space, that space should be accepting of all that you have to offer. And denying any part of that or muting any part of that just feels like death to me.

Yeah. So then you have these other pockets of your life, where they give you energy and they're exciting and it just really punctuates I think the spaces in your life and amplifies the spaces in your life that aren't. So in the way that I serendipitously stumbled into wine and what I showed up to wine to give it, it came back to me and it kind of honored the sacrifice. And I just thought, why isn't that happening over here? And why can I not get this out of gear? And why does that not make me happy in this way?

And it also was a space that I knew nothing about that I got really good at through the investment of time and talents and it yielded a great return. And so it made me realize something wasn't broken in me. I just wasn't spending a lot of... I didn't need to spend a lot of time in spaces that weren't going to give me energy and do the same thing. And yeah, to your question, being open to explore new spaces and having that happen just really, really lets you know what you need to know. And so then it became affirmation that I needed to figure something else out.


I think that's really helpful and insightful because I think that it speaks to, I think the way the legal profession—and especially if you're working at a big law firm—it's so insular and there are so many unspoken rules. And if you're operating just in that environment, you can start to feel, "Well, this is reality, the way people in this environment see the world, act, behave; the way it's structured, like, this is reality." And then when you step outside that and are in other spaces, you can sort of have this realization that like, "Oh no, not everyone structures their life this certain way or thinks these certain priorities are the priorities. And it's not that there's something wrong with me because I don't feel like this is the place or the career path for me. It's just that I have a different viewpoint.” 

I think a lot of lawyers judge themselves like, "Oh, I should want what whoever here in a position I'm supposed to be aspiring to wants. I should want my life to look like that person's." And the reality is you don't have to want that. You can want whatever you want.


Yeah. As my mom says often, she's like, "You need to have a firm constitution." Like, "What is that? What is that? Thanks, Mom." But that's true. 

Whether you understand how you show up or whether the space kind of defines that for you, you'll get the right answer and it'll keep nagging you until you're finally like, "Yeah, there is other stuff going on and this is just not for me. And it's for some, and that's fine." 

I'll be honest with you too. This is funny, of my closest friends who are at the pinnacle of their legal career, they're tired. And they're like, "How is this pace sustainable?" And of course they have teams working under them now and things like that.

And a part of me also feels like, "Let me just keep a toe in and see like, had I..." I don't have any regrets, but "If I... What would that look like?" And I have real conversations with them where they're just like, "I'm trying to find an exit plan." Especially if they're in firms still, they're like, "I got to figure out when to get off and what makes sense for me and my family." And having conversations about having the courage to now pivot out of it. And the longer you stay in those lifestyle, there's a lot of entanglements. It's like it's not easy, but you just feel like happiness is. And so why can't it be?


Yeah, I think that's so, so true. 

So, Helynn, do you have any advice for people who are listening and maybe have had a similar experience that you have, or that you had in the law firm or just sort of like moving through different positions in the law and realizing like, "This maybe is not the right fit for me." What advice would you have for those people?


Yeah. And I give advice that I would take, and I feel like that I've experienced, and my life experience has offered. And I would just say there are signals and signs in your life that show up at the right time and you may not notice them, but they're ever present and they'll just keep getting your attention until you slow down enough to figure out what it is. 

And we all went to law school. Well, if you're a former lawyer or a lawyer, what we know for certain is you went to law school and you passed a bar and you're good enough. And we can throw the whole thing away then. And if we go further and say, "Okay, if we're unfulfilled in any career—not only the legal field, in any career—if you're unfulfilled, find that thing that still honors the education, the hunger, the drive, the humility that led you to it in the first place and pivot towards doing something else and surprise yourself."

You owe it to yourself. We have one life and it may feel very daunting and like, "Oh, am I going to have to start over? You know, my mom's still telling someone I'm a lawyer. What does that mean on Sunday?" Whatever it means. It's your life. And you owe it to yourself to be happy and content and contribute in real ways. And whatever's not sparking joy, start on a pathway of eliminating it to the best of your abilities or finding creativity within it if you can't leave it fast enough or that's not an option. That's long windy advice, but be drawn towards those things that pour into you.


I think that's really good advice. Such good advice. Sometimes very difficult for us lawyer types to take.




But really, really helpful. Are there other things that you would like to share? Any other advice that you have that we haven't already talked about so far?


I'll just say to summarize parts of my story that I shared earlier that life does have trade-offs and there are costs associated with many, if not all, of the things that matter to you in life or should matter. And realizing what those costs are and how much they take away are really important. Also realizing that what feels very heavy through just small quarter turns can show up differently just through the power of intention. 

And I know I'm just doing kind of a binary, like, "Life is bad or feeling heavy. It can get lighter." But when I think of the times that I felt very heavy and like, "Oh gosh, what is this decision going to mean for me?" And what people think of me and all these things. And I talk about it now and look back on it. It was such a short little comma in this whole book. And there've been pages and pages written since then that tell a more enriching story and make all of that make sense. 

Make the sacrifice and the heartache, because it's my belief that if it's not a hard decision, it probably doesn't matter. And the reason why I belabored over things is because it mattered to me and I needed to thoroughly think things through and all of that is fine. All of it's fine and all of it will be okay.


I love that. I think that's so good. So Helynn, if people want to connect with you, what is the best way for them to find you online?


Yeah. So I'm an Instagrammer, I'm also a podcaster. 

So on Instagram, I'll give you kind of the personal and the wine. So my personal Instagram is Helynns. And then my wine Instagram is seedless, like seedless grapes, seedless_somm. And usually the two pages talk to each other. So if you find me one place, I can get you to the other one. 

And then I have a podcast on all available platforms called Wine Fault. And that's been an amazing ride too, just to kind of story tell and connect in that way. So maybe I can serve as the model for this windy road for life, or just a friend in someone's head. That's been a really cool experience.


That's awesome. And I will put the links to all of those accounts into the podcast, in the show notes. So if you're listening and you're interested, you can always just go to the website and all of the links will be there.

Thank you so much for joining me, Helynn. I loved so much hearing your story. It was just awesome to get to talk to you.


Thank you, Sarah. This has been just a dream in the making for me, I'll be honest. And I'm just so grateful for you and this platform. I think it has and will touch so many people and just present alternatives, alternatives to this life thing, and really palatable ways that signal that no one's alone. There are few folks who have traveled this road, find out who they are and just make life relatable and doable. So thank you.


Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.


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 Until next time, have a great week.