What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It can be enacted by a legislature through statutes, decreed by the executive through regulations and orders, or established through court decisions in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that bypass the courts. The precise nature of law is a matter of continuing debate.

Regardless of the precise definition, law shapes politics, economics and society in many ways. It governs a country’s borders, protects its citizens and promotes social justice. However, it can also restrict freedoms, impose poverty or oppress minorities. Some legal systems have been more successful at balancing these competing interests than others.

Law can be broadly divided into three core subjects, though the subject areas overlap and intertwine:

Criminal law is the study of the punishment for a crime. It is a broad and complex subject, which includes criminal procedure, evidence law and the law of crimes. Civil law is the study of the relationships between human beings and their property. It encompasses commercial law and labour law, and it is based on concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law, with much of the detail being codified in civil codes.

The practice of law is the application of laws to solve real-world problems. It involves interpreting the meaning of laws and developing legal arguments to support the client’s position. The client may be a private person or an organization. The attorney must be able to communicate with the client in a way that is understandable and respectful.

Lawyers are usually trained in a university or college that offers a degree in law, such as a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, a master’s degree in law or a doctorate in law (Juris Doctor). Many lawyers are members of a professional association. Lawyers have a unique professional identity achieved through a rigorous legal process that requires passing a bar examination and obtaining membership of a bar council or law society.

Law can be considered a social science and an art. It has been influenced by sociology, history and philosophy. Max Weber reshaped thinking about the extension of state power over individual lives, and modern military, police and bureaucratic powers over everyday activities pose new challenges that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu did not consider. For further reading, see legal theory; legal ethics; and law, philosophy of.