What Is Law?


Law is the set of rules established through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Laws may be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes, by an executive, through decrees and regulations, or by judges, creating a body of binding precedent known as case law. Laws also can be created by private individuals through contractual agreements. In addition, laws can shape politics, economics and history in a variety of ways. Law is a significant subject of scholarly inquiry, forming the basis for legal philosophy, sociology and economic analysis.

While the precise definition of law is debated, most scholars agree that there are three core subjects: contracts, property and criminal law. Contract law consists of the various types of agreements to exchange goods and services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law encompasses people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects, such as houses, cars and books, as well as intangible assets such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law deals with conduct that is harmful to society and may lead to imprisonment or fines.

Besides its practical applications, law shapes politics, economics and history in many ways and raises complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice. For example, Max Weber reshaped thinking about the extension of state power by arguing that government agencies are not transparent enough and lack accountability to the public. The development of modern military, policing and bureaucratic powers over ordinary citizens poses special problems for accountability that previous writers such as Locke and Montesquieu could not have foreseen.

The main purposes of the law are establishing standards, maintaining order and resolving disputes. Different legal systems serve these purposes differently, depending on the ideology of the rulers and the political structure of a nation. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but oppress minorities or opposition, while a democratic regime will tend to foster freedoms and promote social justice.

There are numerous areas of law that can be studied, such as administrative law – the rules that govern how courts administer their work; constitutional law – the constitutional limits on a government’s power; evidence law – the rules governing which materials are admissible in court; and criminal procedure – the process by which crimes are tried before grand juries. The practice of law encompasses a range of careers including lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants. The title of a lawyer, such as Esquire or Doctor of Law, is an indication of their academic and professional qualifications. Legal education can be obtained at university law schools or via the bar. In some countries, the training of legal professionals is overseen by a council of barristers or the chambers of solicitors. Legal ethics are a key component of the practice of law. In other countries, the legal profession is regulated by a statutory code of ethics.