What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of long-standing debate. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It serves four principal functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

People who study or practice law are called lawyers. Lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law, such as criminal, family or commercial. They may also work in public service, such as a law enforcement officer or as a government administrator. The profession is growing rapidly, and a career in law offers many opportunities for those with the right skills and attitude.

The law shapes society in many ways, from defining property ownership and what constitutes a contract to the rules of court procedure. The law can be created by a group or individual legislature, which results in statutes; by executive decrees and regulations; or through judicial decisions, as in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legal contracts and arbitration agreements to resolve disputes.

In a nation-state, the government alone makes laws in some areas, such as copyrights or bankruptcy. In most cases, however, the law is made by state legislatures in subjects such as child custody, divorce, landlord-tenant relations and small business regulation. The law is also created at the federal level in subject areas such as consumer protection, employment and food and drug regulation.

Each country’s law is unique in some way. The differences may be in the structure of its legislature, the power of its executive branch or the rules that courts must follow in interpreting the law. The country’s culture, history and traditions can also contribute to its law.

Different philosophers and thinkers have developed a range of theories about the nature of law. Bentham’s utilitarian definition of law emphasized command and sanction, while natural-law theorists such as John Locke argue that individuals have “God-given” or “natural” rights that cannot be taken from them by a central authority.

Researchers of law use tools such as legal encyclopedias, treatises and American Law Reports to find and interpret legal authority. The Library of Congress also offers a variety of legal periodicals and indexes. When researching law, it is important to read the whole of a statute and its context. It is also helpful to consider other statutory language, such as the wording of “may” and “shall” and whether the statute conflicts with other statutory provisions. This can help to ensure that the law is interpreted consistently and in a way that makes sense. The law is the basis of a democracy and provides fundamental freedoms to its citizens. However, the existence of law in a democracy does not necessarily guarantee that it will be observed or obeyed. This is the reason for a constitutional framework that places limits on the power of the legislative and executive branches. The law is not a panacea for all societal problems, but it can be a tool that allows society to resolve its differences and achieve stability.