What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has long been a matter of debate. Nevertheless, the principal functions of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect liberties and rights. Governments that lack stability or are ruled by authoritarian rulers often fail to perform these essential functions. In most nation-states (as countries are called in international law), the power to make and enforce laws resides with those who have political control, largely determined by military strength or popular support. Revolts against established political-legal authority are a recurring feature of most societies.

Lawyers, who are primarily trained in law schools and are licensed to practice law before state or federal courts, must master a wide variety of legal topics. They study criminal law, civil procedure, contracts, torts, property, evidence, family law, and corporate law. They may also be involved in specialized fields, such as environmental, labor, or international law.

Most law students take part in student organizations, which are a valuable supplement to classroom learning and provide the opportunity for a broader range of experiences. A select few will be invited to serve on the editorial boards of the profession’s principal scholarly journals, a mark of academic distinction.

In “common law” systems (about 60% of the world’s nations), court decisions are recognized as authoritative law, equal in status with statutes adopted through the legislative process and regulations issued by executive branch agencies. These systems differ from “civil law” systems that rely more on a code of laws and a body of case law derived from precedents (the legal principle of stare decisis).

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