Career Day: Law Professor

Tell us a little about yourself and about your job.

My name is Mehrsa Baradaran and I grew up in New York, but immigrated to America from Iran when I was nine. I went to BYU undergrad and NYU Law School. After practicing law for a few years, I taught at BYU Law School, and now I am a law professor at the University of Georgia. This is my 4th year teaching. I’ve taught Contract Law, Property Law, Banking Law, and administrative law.

Why did you want to become a law professor? When did you know it was what you wanted to do? What drew you to the profession/field?

I took a very circuitous route to becoming a law professor. I spent all of undergrad doing pre-med. After serving a mission, I decided I didn’t want to do medicine anymore and wanted to go to law school (not pursuing an advanced degree of some sort was not an option in my home). I knew I wanted to be in NYC for law school (close to my family), so I applied to two or three schools in the area and got a scholarship to NYU. I wanted to do immigration law because my mission was with Spanish-speaking immigrants, and I am an immigrant myself. I did an immigration clinic during my second year of law school and decided that I most definitely did not want to do immigration law. I did not think I was qualified to teach because the barriers seemed too high. I went to a big NYC law firm after law school and practiced for a few years. I had kids during that time and after having my second, could not bear the long hours away from them anymore. So I quit, without a plan. During my time at home, I tried to write and publish in my field. I got lucky because I was working in banking law in 2008 when the market fell apart, so I just wrote in that area. I landed an academic fellowship at NYU because of this writing, and the fellowship allowed me to stay home another year. Later, a job opened up at BYU law and I applied. After some time at BYU, we left to come to Georgia because my husband got a great opportunity at UGA. My second time around on the legal academic market, I was much more confident. I got lots of offers from schools because my scholarship began to be recognized in my field.

What kind of education is required? Any post graduation requirements?

All you need to teach law is a Juris Doctor (J.D.), but that is a bit deceptive. It is very difficult to get a job as a law professor. Most applicants come from top schools (lucky for me NYU was a top 5 program), they have fancy clerkships (I did not clerk even though my professors told me to apply–I was “sure” then that I didn’t want to pursue teaching), have great grades, and are on law review (a prestigious journal that only about 10% of the class is on). I did get good grades and was on law review. In addition to that, you have to write and publish a few articles (the equivalent of dissertation chapter which is about 60-70 pages)–the more the better. Even then, it’s still a game of luck. Every year, I watch my institution turn away applicants from top schools that have resumes that I could only dream of with great publication records to boot.

What kinds of job opportunities are there in your field?

There are literally thousands of jobs lawyers can do after law school–you can go to a firm and either litigate or do transactional (business law) work; you can work for the government: in the criminal, civil, or administrative system (think EPA, Federal Reserve, FDA, etc.); you can start your own firm, you can go in-house to a company or a non-profit like a university or charity, or you can use your law degree to start a business or just bring additional skills to the business or non-profit sector. Or you can be a law professor.

What is the best part of your job?

There are so many wonderful things about being a law professor. I feel like it’s one of the best jobs in the world, which is why it’s so hard to get hired. The best part for me is that I get to teach and work with students. I get to advise them in their careers, their lives, or whatever they want to talk to me about, and I get to teach them the law (and that is a lot of fun). Many people may not like being a lawyer (the profession has gotten a lot of bad press lately), but I think most people love law school. It’s pretty mind-expanding and exciting to learn the law. Second best is that writing my scholarship is a lot of fun. I get to come up with an idea, research it, and publish it. I like that process a lot. It also means that I can set my own hours–besides when I have to show up and teach (which is about three days a week for an hour or two each day), I can do my scholarship whenever I want. I also get summers off. Third best: I do nothing that’s monotonous or boring (except for grading, but that’s only twice a year).

What is the worst part of your job?

Even when I am not at work, there is always something to be done. It’s my own decision how much and what kind of scholarship I want to publish, but it can be pretty stressful sometimes to think about good topics for articles and try to make my writing perfect. As any writer can attest, writing can be a really draining process, and it’s riddled with self-doubt and anxiety. Most people in our field are perfectionists, type-A types, and we have only our own inner drive motivating us to write (after tenure, that is). So I often have to battle myself to make sure I have enough time in my life to do the things that matter. Sometimes, I get out of balance and put way too much time into work and then I have to make sure I rein it in quickly.

What’s the work/family/life balance like?

It’s as good or as bad as you want it to be. It also fluctuates depending on deadlines. I have taken my babies to work with me, I have worked at home a lot, and like I said before, I get my summers off. However, I do have to travel to conferences, “work” even when I’m not at work, and there is no flexibility about class time.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

Teaching law is not like teaching undergrads. It’s different–actually, it’s a lot easier (in my opinion). I teach less, get paid more, don’t write grants, and don’t worry too much about tenure (the tenure process for law schools is a lot less stringent–it’s unusual for someone to get denied tenure at a law school).

What opportunities have you had because of your education and profession that you might not otherwise have had?

I have a pretty great pulpit to affect the national dialogue on certain policy issues. My specialty is banking, and I have had my work cited in newspapers and even by some policymakers. It feels great to actually write things that people read and consider when they are making laws in my field. I have also had the ability to counsel students on career and life questions. That is always challenging, but makes my job really worthwhile.

What stereotypes or criticisms have you faced as an educated Mormon woman with her own career?

I think most people do not think I actually have a full-time job because I do have some flexibility so I have not gotten too much judgment about my work. Also, as a woman of color, I don’t fit the typical Mormon mold, so I think I escape a lot of that cultural pressure. Not “fitting in” has its advantages sometimes.

What spiritual guidance have you felt as you have pursued your education and developed your career?

I have always known I wanted to have a career, but I did feel very strongly that I needed to quit my firm job. I didn’t really know where to go from there, so I truly felt that when this teaching opportunity opened up for me, it really was a divine message. It is the job I was meant to do. I don’t ever doubt that. I do worry a lot about whether I am spending enough time with my kids, but that’s a struggle every mom (Mormon or not) has, and it is an ongoing one without easy resolutions.

Any other thoughts, advice, or stories you’d like to share with other women?

Know who you are and make your own path through your career and motherhood. I was the only girl among my college friends who was pursuing a career. I was the only girl among my law school friends who was married and wanted to start a family right away. People didn’t know what to do with me, and I got a lot of advice from people who were different than me that if I had followed might have led me to a place I didn’t want to be.

I’m not saying I always knew what I wanted to do (that much is obvious from the above), but I had a general idea and I followed that. And the most important thing is to do well and work hard at everything you do. I got straight As in undergrad because I wanted to get into med school, and I knew I needed the grades. When I decided med school wasn’t for me, the grades helped me get into a great law school (with a scholarship). I did well in law school even though I didn’t need to in order to get a firm job (our dean was famous for saying “everyone gets B’s, everyone gets a job”). I still did well and those grades helped out when I changed my mind about the firm.

*To view Mehrsa’s I’m a Mormon video, click here.

2 Comments on “Career Day: Law Professor

  1. This was really, really splendid. I loved this thought, because it’s one I can empathize with: “People didn’t know what to do with me, and I got a lot of advice from people who were different than me that if I had followed might have led me to a place I didn’t want to be.”

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