The Basics of Law


Law is a system of rules that regulates the conduct of people and sets punishments for violations. It serves many purposes, but four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. A person who studies and argues the laws is called a lawyer or jurist. Lawyers can be transactional, writing contracts and agreements, or litigants, who take cases to court. In the United States, lawyers are called attorneys and in the UK they are solicitors or barristers.

The earliest law dates back to ancient Babylonia, where King Hammurabi took Babylonian law and chiselled it into stone for everyone to see in the marketplace. Later, some countries developed systems of law based on culture and religious books like the Vedas, Bible or Koran. Other countries rely on a combination of statutes (officially enacted laws) and regulations and case law. The latter is a decision by a judge or group of judges based on a specific case but which has broader legal weight that can be used in similar future cases. This is also known as “stare decisis” or “judge made law.”

Some critics argue that at its most basic, law is simply power backed by threats. For example, if a sovereign issues an order and people follow it, even though it is a bad law, then it is still followed because the sovereign can enforce it with force or financial penalties.

Most of us live in societies that use the law in one form or another to manage daily life. Some examples are contract law, which governs the creation of contracts for buying or selling goods and services; property law, which defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible possessions, including homes and stocks; and administrative law, which outlines how to administer government agencies.

Many of these laws are framed by moral principles. For example, the law against insider trading (using nonpublic information to trade stocks) reflects a moral position against cruelty. Likewise, the concept of due process in the law relates to a fundamental respect for fairness and decency in government actions.

In addition to these broad areas of the law, specialized fields include criminal, environmental, family, civil rights and aviation law. In each field, there are sub-topics and many of these are governed by a constitution or other important documents. Consequently, there is much complexity to law and a lot of it changes over time. Lawyers need to be familiar with a wide range of materials in order to keep up with the fast pace of change.