A Taxing Situation
Tax attorney Cathy Creech ’84 apologized for being a few minutes late for an interview with Transylvania University magazine. It seems a government lawyer had called her on her cell phone just as she was pulling into her parking space that morning at the Washington, D.C., firm of Davis & Harman LLP, where she is currently managing partner.
Such is the pace of her work in the nation’s capital that when that kind of call comes, she usually takes it, regardless of where she is.
“We had some questions about the Internal Revenue Code provision on executive compensation, and I didn’t want to miss him,” Creech said. “We want them to issue a ruling that says something, and they don’t want to do it.”
That’s all in a day’s work for Creech, whose job involves advising companies and trade associations on tax issues and lobbying the federal government on their behalf. She came to Davis & Harman in 2002 when a group of her colleagues recruited her from another Washington law firm, Miller & Chevalier, where she had been since 1994.
Before that, the Transylvania English major and 1987 Harvard Law School graduate had seen these issues from the perspective of the federal government from 1991-94, when she was attorney-advisor in the Office of Tax Policy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Her work there involved stock options, executive compensation, and qualified plans.
“I enjoyed helping make the rules, figuring out what the right answers ought to be,” Creech said of her Treasury work. “I worked for a short time under the first Bush administration, then under the Clinton administration, drafting legislation and regulations. It was an exciting time.”
Succeeding at one of the nation’s premiere law schools, moving between the public and private sectors in the heat of D.C., and becoming a recognized expert in her area of federal tax law is a challenging calling. It demands mental toughness, creativity, and the ability to adapt to entirely different perspectives on important issues. For Creech, that all started at Transylvania.
“I think the fact that I had a broad liberal arts education that taught me to think, write well, and analyze a variety of topics, whether it was a Shakespeare sonnet or the political and social theories of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, has served me very well,” Creech said. “I had a fabulous course in art history, where I had to analyze pieces of art, and a genetics course with Lila Boyarsky. All of those experiences required a certain intensity and seriousness about the topic. No matter what area of work you go into, that’s excellent intellectual preparation.”
Creech was also very involved in extracurricular activities at Transy, serving as president of the Student Government Association and as a head resident adviser. She was a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority, president of Panhellenic, and a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Order of Omega leadership honoraries and the English Honorary.
Her Transylvania honors included the Freshman Cup, the Lydia Todhunter Cup, Susan Lunger Brown Award, Jefferson Davis Award, Delcamp Award, and Virginia Bowman Cecil Award. She was also listed in Who’s Who Among College Students.
Creech’s leadership positions at Transy have also been beneficial to her in her public speaking and professional advancement activities.
“In some ways, life is just like being in student government or a sorority or fraternity,” she said. “You have to get along with people and mesh different personalities to motivate people to do what the organization needs to have done. I’m no longer worried about rush violations as Panhellenic chair, but you do learn a lot about human nature in those positions.”
Two professors will always be foremost in her Transy memories—English professor Tay Fizdale and political science professor Don Dugi.
It was Fizdale’s eloquence in teaching a survey course that fired her decision to major in English. “I really loved Tay Fizdale and was completely drawn in by the way he analyzed literature,” Creech said. “His ability to take it apart and present different theories about it was just fascinating to me.”
Creech credits Dugi’s rigorous, insightful guidance on preparing for the Law School Admission Test for helping give her the opportunity to attend Harvard.
“I took a lot of political science courses with Don Dugi and really liked it,” she said. “I remember taking the LSAT practice exams he had for us. He taught you how to take it so you would do your best.”
As her senior year rolled around, Creech was still uncertain about her future, weighing the option of getting a Ph.D. in English literature and becoming an academic. However, the key Transy experience that sealed her decision to practice law was an internship with a Lexington law firm arranged by the University’s Career Development Center.
“I worked 15 or 20 hours a week doing legal research and writing opinions,” Creech said. “Most of it was of the slip-and-fall personal injury variety, but it was exciting to me. I found that figuring out the facts of a situation and what the law was appealed to me.”
Creech began law school at Harvard in the fall of 1984, a time when women were still a distinct minority.
“When I was at Harvard, my class was only 27 percent women,” she said. “It was still very much a male-dominated place. It was also a different environment overall from Transy, which was warm and collegial. Harvard was a big, bad place, and you had to find your own niche and make your own community.”
One of the communities Creech enjoyed at Harvard was the group of classmates she worked with her third year when she was editor of the Harvard Women’s Law Journal.
“We got articles submitted from very prominent people,” she said. “I had to learn how to deal with authors. I discovered that even famous people in the field would send you half-written things that we law students basically had to finish for them.”
Creech may have arrived at Harvard a little wide-eyed, but she left with a sense of confidence in her future.
“Academically, I was just as prepared as any of my classmates, though some of them had parents who were very important people, and they had traveled the world,” she said. “There are many prominent professors at Harvard, famous people you’d see on television and then in your class. Being there gave me opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and a sense that I could do anything I wanted to do.”
Creech joined Miller & Chevalier right out of Harvard Law in 1987. The firm specialized in federal tax issues, an area of the law that has set the tone for her career to this point. She left the firm in 1991 for three years at Treasury, returned to it in 1994, then was recruited to Davis & Harman six years ago.
Her firm is located in The Willard, an office building connected to the historic Willard Hotel on Washington’s most prominent boulevard, Pennsylvania Avenue. That puts her physically, and symbolically, at the center of things in the nation’s capital. Being well connected is always a virtue, and Creech has stepped outside her law firm job to become actively involved in her profession, which is fulfilling to her personally and also an asset professionally.
“In what I do, it is helpful to have a certain profile as an expert,” she said. “I get that profile by things like public speaking and working for the District of Columbia Bar Association.” Creech is also on the board of the Southern Federal Tax Institute, and is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, where she and a client co-teach a seminar on executive compensation.
Creech also devotes part of her life to community involvement outside her profession, including serving as a board member for a charter school in the District. “Some of this goes back to the Transy ‘Try all things, think about all things, be a broad person’ perspective,” she said. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I’ve had good people who helped me along the way, and many of those started at Transylvania. I’m at the point in my career where I want to start mentoring and helping other people.”
Creech is married to Britt Reynolds ’85, associate director of admissions at the University of Maryland. They have two children, Blair Reynolds, 11, and Robert Reynolds, 7.
She says she originally planned to return to Kentucky to work, but now finds herself happily at home living in the District. “Now it’s 20 years, and I have two children and own a house, so I guess I’m a Washingtonian.”