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Sisters teach law side by side at BYU

PROVO — On the first day of school in 1986, two dark-complexioned sisters incapable of speaking a lick of English arrived at a Los Angeles elementary school seeking education and enlightenment. Naturally, the powers-that-be promptly placed them in a class where Spanish was spoken.

One minor problem: the sisters were recent Iranian immigrants who spoke Farsi and knew as much Spanish as they did English.

Mehrsa Baradaran, now a 32-year-old BYU professor, and her younger sister Shima were eventually placed in separate English-speaking classrooms. The sisters would learn English within three months of starting school, a testament to their intelligence.

During their intense cultural assimilation, in many ways they only had each other to rely on. At home their father and mother were understandably preoccupied after leaving behind all their extended family, and a newborn sister demanded a lion's share of their parents' attention.

What a difference a quarter century makes.

Those two immigrant sisters initially assigned to the Spanish class in 1986? Today they're both newly minted professors at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School. In an institution where gender and cultural diversity have always been sensitive issues, it's Mehrsa and Shima Baradaran who have seized the distinction of becoming the first siblings in the law school's 37-year history to simultaneously work as tenure-track faculty.

Cut from the same cloth

Mehrsa and Shima share layers of similarities. Both met their future husbands while they were undergrads at BYU. (As is the norm for many Iranian women, they continue using their maiden surnames even after marriage.) Between them they have a quintet of half-Persian progeny, with each sister mothering her own 5-year-old and 3-year-old and Mehrsa also having a 5-month-old she brings to work every day except when she teaches.

At their subconscious cores, they're both propelled by a standing mandate their immigrant parents long ago seared into their souls: seize every opportunity America affords you.

"Our parents influenced Shima and I deciding to educate ourselves," Mehrsa explains. "They worked really hard to get us here; we learned our work ethic from them. It's part of the immigrant mentality. They worked so hard to come to America where you can be anything."

A few things obviously distinguish one sister from the other: Mehrsa is older and speaks Spanish (an ability she acquired when, after turning 21 years old, she spent 18 months giving service to Hispanic immigrants in Houston); Shima has longer hair; and they graduated from different law schools, Mehrsa graduating cum laude from NYU and Shima finishing first in her class at BYU.

Beneath the surface, more subtle differences differentiate the sisters. Mehrsa describes herself as a relaxed homebody who looks forward to spending time with her family and reading a book on the weekends. Shima, on the other hand, usually has a packed social agenda?which includes live music, rock climbing or going to a water park.

Their research interests nicely illustrate the differences inherent in their personalities: Mehrsa writes about banking regulation while Shima researches crime and violence.

Two roads converge

Only a two-minute car ride separates the Baradarans' houses. Between their collective four jobs and five children, the two families somehow find time to get together several times a week. They've even been known to share a baby sitter and do the double-date thing — a dynamic enhanced by the fact that the husbands, Jared Bybee and Jeff Robison, were themselves friends before either ever dated a Baradaran.

As idyllic as their intersected lives are today, last year Mehrsa was comfortably embedded as an Academic Research Fellow at NYU Law School while Shima served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Africa. The proverbial landscape changed only when Mehrsa and Jared started souring on New York because it suddenly didn't seem like such a great place to raise a family.

Against that backdrop, the sisters conferred, conspired and hatched a plan: if they could both land gigs in Utah and move their families to the Beehive State, they'd be together again — and maybe, just maybe their geographical convergence would be enough incentive to persuade their parents (living in New York), sister (in medical school) and brother (in high school) to eventually follow suit and relocate to the Wasatch Front.

Serendipitously, BYU Law School had a need for professors just like Shima and Mehrsa. The death of one criminal law professor (Michael Goldsmith) and extended leave of another (Larry EchoHawk) made Shima and her background in criminal law timely fits for BYU. And with more of the first generation of BYU law professors reaching retirement age every year, there was room as well for Mehrsa, a graduate of the No. 6 law school in the country who has published in the field of banking regulations.

"We were thrilled to add two dynamic new faculty members," James Rasband, dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, related to the Deseret News in an e-mail. "Both are off to a great start and have impressed students and colleagues."