Elizabeth Hays Taylor ’94 moved to D.C. right out of college and worked for 10 years on the Hill before moving into advocacy for the private sector.
Entering Rhodes College, Elizabeth Hays Taylor ’94 was certain that she would major in science. It was her forté, and she remembered taking aptitude tests that predicted she was destined to do something meticulous, with focus, exactness, and precision. She majored in chemistry for two years at Rhodes before finding herself in a political science class, where she had a light-bulb moment. “I was fascinated by the way politics can reflect human behavior and the reasons why our government works the way it works,” she recalled.
After she changed her major to political science, she found an externship in the Memphis office of Fred Thompson, the U.S. Senator from Tennessee. The externship wasn’t glitzy: Taylor answered phones and handled constituent complaints, but it made an impression. When she graduated, she called the senator’s Memphis office and inquired if there were any positions available in Washington, D.C. They promised to keep an eye out for her, and she kept in contact. Several months later the senator’s office called to say there was a position open in D.C. “They interviewed me over the phone, offered me the job on a Thursday, and asked, ‘Can you be here Monday morning?’ ” Taylor jumped in her car and drove to D.C.
There was a hitch, though. The job would be an internship until the full-time job became available, although they promised her it would happen. She was taking a risk. “My parents thought it was a little bit crazy,” Taylor recalled. “I thought, ‘well, what’s the worst that can happen? Move up there for a few months, and then turn around and come back.’ ” It was a good gamble. It launched Taylor’s career, and she’s been in Washington, D.C., ever since.Answering Mail Opens Doors
These days, Taylor works for Regions Bank as executive vice president, head of governmental affairs & economic development and assistant general counsel. It’s a long title, she admitted, but in essence, she advocates on behalf of the bank with members of Congress and federal agencies. For instance, if a new bill or rule is being proposed that will impact the bank and the products it offers, Taylor and her team educate lawmakers on the impact of the bill or rule in order to improve it and advise the bank to help the bank prepare for any necessary operational changes.
Elizabeth Hays Taylor ’94 advising Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
It is not a position one could step into easily without some deep knowledge and the experience of working in Congress. Taylor’s 10 years working on Capitol Hill prepared her well for the role.
It started in Senator Thompson’s office in 1998, where Taylor’s first job was as a legislative correspondent. Essentially, she answered the senator’s constituent mail. Although it sounds basic, it was the perfect primer on the workings of the Capitol. “I cut my teeth learning the issues that were of interest to the senator and trying to represent his views in answering constituent mail and questions,” she explained. The writing skills that were a foundation of her time at both Hutchison and Rhodes College quickly came in handy. After a year, she moved to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations where she worked for the chief counsel running investigations and hearings.
Before long, Taylor knew she wanted to go to law school. “I looked at some of the jobs on the Hill that I thought I wanted to have, and they all required a law degree,” she said. She matriculated to American University where she studied at night while working at a law firm during the day. While working as a paralegal, she got her first taste of a “trial by fire” when the head paralegal on a $200 million tax case quit and Taylor was tasked with leading a team of five during discovery and the ensuing 10-week trial in federal district court in Michigan. She hit the ground running and figured it out.
Taylor never envisioned herself working at a law firm, though. She said the law degree was the means to an end, her entrée to some interesting opportunities, including one right out of law school. Around the time she received her Juris Doctor in 2004, Senate Democrats were filibustering President Bush's judicial nominations and Republicans were asserting it was unconstitutional, a topic on which she had authored a law review article during law school. The Republican National Committee recruited Taylor as a research analyst and counsel for judicial issues to advise the RNC and coordinate with the White House, Senate, and Department of Justice on the confirmation process. Shortly after joining the RNC, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired and Chief Justice William Rehnquist passed away, opening two seats on the Supreme Court. She helped run the confirmation hearings for their replacements—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito—in 2005 and 2006.BECOMING AN EXPERT ... ON MANY THINGS
It wasn’t long before Taylor felt the call to return to the Hill. She was recruited to work for Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) on the Senate Judiciary Committee, first as counsel and then chief counsel for the Nominations and Constitutional Law section of the committee. The Judiciary Committee oversees all of the nominees to the federal courts and the Department of Justice.
There’s not much like counseling a senator on a circuit court or attorney general nomination while sitting behind the dais,” Taylor recalled. “You are providing follow-up questions and rebuttals to arguments in real-time. There’s a ton of work that goes into preparing for each of those hearings—going through the nominee's voluminous records and then distilling it down into a digestible format the senator can use.” After a few years managing the nomination division, she had the opportunity to work on two more Supreme Court confirmations—Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor—but her view was much closer than when she was at the RNC. “It was an amazing opportunity to advise a senator on such high-profile lifetime appointments and to do so by utilizing my study of constitutional law, Senate procedure, and the political process,” she recalled.
She then served as chief counsel to two other senators on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, managing their full Judiciary Committee agendas and their responsibilities as the ranking members of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, including supervising the subcommittee counsels and legislative staff.
During her eight years on the Judiciary Committee, she became adept at writing succinct memos, almost daily, to brief senators on the most salient information. “You really are the expert,” she explained. “You’ve done the legal research, met the industry leaders on the issue, and talked with the senator’s constituents.” “Then you are sitting behind the senator when he’s deciding how to vote or how to ask a question. Most senators have a gut instinct on where they want to be on an issue, but you’re there to help provide context and advice.”
“I love that I get to learn something new nearly every day.”
Admittedly, there was a lot of pressure, too. “It can be challenging finding the right information and making sure it is correct, because you never wanted to hand a senator something that wasn’t right and have him say it publicly,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure to produce an analysis in a short amount of time and to ensure every detail is accurate.” It seems the aptitude tests she took in high school were correct about doing work with focus and precision.
There was no handbook for much of the work she was doing, so Taylor said it was vital to ask a lot of questions. “I think sometimes people are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to sound like they don’t know what’s going on, but asking questions is a way to learn from the people who are around you,” she explained. “You need to be willing to step forward and take the reins, even if you’re not positive you know what you’re doing. Every job is a leap with new responsibilities.”From Legislative Work to Advocacy
In 2014, Taylor left the Hill to go work for the International Franchise Association, a trade organization that represents franchise businesses such as McDonald’s or Planet Fitness. She handled federal policy lobbying on topics such as taxes, healthcare, or access to capital. She was then promoted to be the chief legal officer, working on regulatory and legal issues for the organization.
“I think sometimes people are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to sound like they don’t know what’s going on, but asking questions is a way to learn from the people who are around you.”
In 2017, she was recruited to Regions Bank as head of regulatory affairs and then promoted to manage Regions’ government affairs division, including federal and state advocacy, as head of governmental affairs and economic development. It brings her full circle. When she was on the Hill, she would meet with lobbyists who would explain the impact of various laws on their industry, and she would convey that information to the senator. These days, in her position at Regions, she is on the advocacy side educating staffers on the Hill as well as regulatory bodies such as the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and others.
Even though political partisanship often dominates the news headlines, Taylor said that when she worked on the Hill, it was not always an accurate portrayal of what it was like. “I don’t think people realize how much time you spend with the staff from the other side,” she explained. “On the Privacy Subcommittee, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) was the chair, while my senator was the ranking member. We had to put together hearings, negotiate legislation, and conduct investigations daily. We were friends and remain friends. You had to do that to make it tolerable.”
She knows there’s an allure to the work being done in Congress. “I do a fair amount of mentoring of people who are interested in coming to D.C. and working on the Hill. The advice I give people is to be open to any job that you can get because you never know where it’s going to lead. Network and talk to people and prove you can do a good job. Then you’ll probably move into the position you want fairly quickly.”
Once you’re there, she said it’s about talking to people and finding mentors, both male and female. “Ask, ‘How did you approach this? Are there organizations you recommend that provide networking opportunities? Who else would you recommend I talk to?’ There are so many people out there who are willing to give a hand up in the process. It’s just a matter of finding them.”
One thing that’s changed since she worked on the Hill, Taylor said, is the ability to be more in control of her work-life balance. “When you’re working on the Hill, if somebody says, ‘We’re going to vote on that tonight,’ the members have to say, ‘Okay, we’re staying tonight, cancel your plans.’ You couldn’t plan a vacation or even make dinner reservations.”
Taylor is married, has a dog, and owns a farm near Charlottesville, where she keeps some cows. “I’m a part-time farmer,” she said with a smile. “We’re there most weekends.”
When she visited Hutchison to talk to upper school girls, Taylor recalled advice she got while at Rhodes College. “A professor said to me, ‘You’re young, you’re inexperienced, you don’t know anything, but one thing you can offer is energy. Bring that full force of energy with you every day, and that will drive you forward in your career.’”Q&A
In November 2022, Elizabeth Hays Taylor stopped by Hutchison and spoke to upper school students about her years of work in Washington, D.C., and her advice to them. Here are some of their questions and her answers.
What does a day in the life of your job look like?
It could be going to meetings of banking trade associations that represent business sectors to talk about what’s important to Regions. Or it could be traveling to various markets and talking to bankers and the people who are doing the real work within the bank. I nd out what’s important to their business line and what they are seeing in the economy and it informs my conversations with Congress and the regulators.
How important is networking?
A lot of what I do is talking to different people. Creating coalitions is important when you’re trying to do something on the Hill. If you can get a diverse set of people that are all arguing for the same thing, you’re far more likely to be successful. That means determining where you have commonalities and where you can coordinate together. Successful lobbying is getting to know as many people as you can and making sure that you not only rely on them for help but that you also help them. It is a two-way street.
What is your advice about law school?
If you’re going to law school, figure out how that works with your goals. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it’s hard. Take the time to figure out what you want out of it. You may graduate with significant debt. Be willing to study anywhere in the country. Consider that you might have the same tuition cost at an equally well-ranked school, but much lower living expenses. There are skills that you can acquire in law school for many different careers.
What’s the biggest challenge in banking or government right now?
Congressional districts are more and more either red or blue and when members of Congress are in safe seats, many of them are not compelled to compromise with the other side. That manifests in dramatic swings in D.C. where the rules change depending on which party is in power. That’s difficult for businesses. Also, corporations are facing significant challenges with activism that's making it complicated to do business.
What advice would you give your high school self?
Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Talk to as many adults as you can about what they like about their jobs. One of the great things about working on Capitol Hill and in Congress was that I learned so much about the broad range of career opportunities that are out there. I wish everybody could see some of that earlier in their lives so they could see clearly what they like and don’t like.
What have you enjoyed about your time in Washington, D.C.?
I’ve been able to be in the mix of everything and learn about a wide range of different issues. The work deals with topics on the front page of the newspaper and you might be helping prepare a senator make decisions that affect the entire country.
What makes you excited to wake up and go to work every day?
Meeting new people. I love that I get to learn something new nearly every day. When we are presented with announcements from Congress or regulatory agencies on various issues, I have to figure out what it means and how to convey that to people.
What advice do you have for women trying to succeed in male-dominated careers?
Never underestimate yourself. You’re just as smart as they are. Be willing to speak your mind, have an opinion, and ask a question. Recognize that no one has all of the answers. I’ve had male and female mentors. They’ve been great at saying: "Don’t doubt yourself. You got the job. Go do it.” My advice is to never doubt yourself, but always be prepared.