What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules a society or government develops to regulate human behavior, dealing with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. It is also the basis for a wide range of fields, including economic analysis and sociology. The law influences politics, society and history, as well as providing a subject for scholarly study, often posing fundamental questions about equity, fairness and justice.

In the United States, “law” typically refers to a legal system that uses common law. In this system, judges make decisions on individual cases, and a compilation of those decisions, called case law, establishes legal precedent. This differs from other countries, such as Japan, that use civil law systems, which rely on codes to set forth the rules a judge must follow in order to reach a decision.

The law is a source of controversy and disagreement in modern societies, particularly with respect to issues such as privacy, discrimination, immigration, property rights and the role of the state. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States regularly hears cases challenging the constitutionality of laws that appear to violate individuals’ right to freedom of religion or conscience. The law is also a subject of intense debate over how far a state should go in exercising control over its citizens, with some arguing that limits on the authority of a governing body are necessary to protect personal liberty and public safety.

The practice of law is a highly regulated profession in most countries. Lawyers must typically pass a rigorous examination to be licensed to represent clients in courts or before administrative agencies. They must also obtain a degree from a law school and complete extensive work experience, usually under the supervision of an experienced attorney. In some jurisdictions, the practice of law is overseen by an independent regulating body such as a bar association or a law society.

Law covers many different topics and can be broadly divided into three categories: criminal law, civil law and administrative law. Criminal law is the area of law that deals with criminal acts, such as homicide or fraud. Civil law relates to disputes between people, such as contract disputes or lawsuits. Administrative law deals with issues such as taxation and licensing. These three areas of law are often referred to as the “triangle of law” because they all interact with one another. Law also has a broad social impact, touching upon such diverse matters as medical jurisprudence, linguistics and the philosophy of science. The study of law is a major subject in schools of political science, sociology, history and philosophy. A number of prominent scholars have contributed to the development of ideas about law and its role in a society. Max Weber, for instance, reshaped thinking about the extension of the power of the state and about the nature of authority in modern societies. He argued that the emergence of large bureaucracies and military power could pose problems for democratic governance that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu had not considered.