Human Resources, Law, and Sustainability

Q&A: Tammy Helminski

November 14, 2017
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Tammy Helminski
Tammy Helminski. Courtesy Barnes & Thornburg

Editor’s note: Each Q&A in the Influential Women enewsletter will feature a woman from the region who’s influential, a rising face in her industry or doing interesting work. Submit tips on potential Q&A subjects to tgortsema at grbj dot com.

Tammy Helminski is a partner at the national law firm of Barnes & Thornburg, practicing environmental law out of its Grand Rapids office.

Building on her background as an environmental engineer and leveraging her environmental policy background, Helminski helps her clients solve complex environmental compliance and remediation issues. 

Helminski enjoys serving the City of Grand Rapids as the chair of its Vital Streets Oversight Commission, the State Bar of Michigan Environmental Law Section as a council member and co-chair of the Brownfields and Hazardous Substances Committee and her undergraduate alma mater as an external advisory board member for the Pavlis Honors College at Michigan Technological University. 

Biggest career break?

When I was 19 years old, I had a summer internship to work with an environmental engineer at the Ford Engine & Fuel Tank Plant in Dearborn. Growing up in a small town, then going to college in a small town in the U.P. was such a stark contrast to working at this facility within the historic 1,000-acre Ford Rouge Complex. It opened my eyes to the world of manufacturing — all it had been, all it was and all it could be. I went on to work my next two summers at Ford and then full-time after graduation with my B.S. in environmental engineering and M.S. in environmental policy. The rest of my education and work experience, whether as an engineer or attorney, was shaped by what I saw that first summer. I helped the plant with environmental compliance, doing tasks like making sure the drums of hazardous waste were properly labeled and helping with reporting to the EPA. I learned that compliance at a manufacturing facility involved taking sometimes obscure language from the Code of Federal Regulations and trying to make sense of it to workers on the plant floor. Regulations, no matter what their stated purpose, are meaningless if they cannot be practically implemented. Those lessons and that perspective is what I bring to my practice and my clients every day. 

Proudest moment?

Being a parent, my proudest moments are when I see my children doing something kind, being creative or making good choices. It’s so important that they grow up with strong character and integrity. I am proud when I get glimpses of this. 

Best advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t know you’re not supposed to be there.” I was told this by an alumnus while I was in law school at the University of Michigan. It takes a second thought to appreciate the double negative, but it’s about doing something that you, or maybe someone like you, have never done before. It’s about not erecting artificial barriers to whatever you want to accomplish. It’s about each individual understanding that she has a voice. It’s perfect advice for so many situations. 

How did you make your first dollar?

Babysitting for family or family friends growing up. 

Most-treasured possession?

There are two things I have inherited from my grandpa that I treasure: his love of brandy and his walking stick, which is a shepherd’s axe from Slovakia. 

Dream job?

I love to read and write and explore the outdoors — good thing I’m an attorney in West Michigan!

If you were president for a day, you would…?

Pay respects to our veterans and those currently serving in our armed forces. 

Last book you read?

Wicked,” by Gregory Maguire. I saw the show twice, while it was playing with Broadway Grand Rapids and wanted to read the book.

Last search term you googled?

“CERCLA continuing obligations for tenants”

Your worst habit?

Trying to do too many tasks at once

To unwind, you like to…?

Go hiking. I love to be outdoors. It’s even better when my boys and puppy, a one-year-old golden retriever, are with me. 

Dream vacation?

I’d love to go somewhere and see sights by day, like hiking mountains or through some medieval European city, and then relaxing at night watching a movie or reading a book.   

Favorite food?

Popcorn — made on the stove only. I love to vary the toppings. I’ve perfected not only the classic salt and butter, but others flavors like garlic and parmesan. It really is the best medium for so many flavors.  

Person you most admire?

My husband, Jeff. He has this amazing ability to think anything is possible. He has this innate entrepreneurial spirit that says, “Of course that can be done.” As someone whose job it is to anticipate problems for my clients, he is a good balance.  

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