What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. The precise nature of law is a topic of longstanding debate, but it may involve a combination of rules created by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive branch, through decrees and regulations, or by judicial decisions that become binding on lower courts under the “doctrine of precedent” (or stare decisis); or by an individual, creating legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements. The legal system also includes rules regulating business transactions, criminal justice procedures, and property rights.

Law can be influenced by many different factors, including morality and power. For example, Bentham’s utilitarian definition of law emphasized that law is “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” More recently, scholars have debated the extent to which natural or moral law should be included in law.

Regardless of the exact definition, most people would agree that the purpose of law is to protect individual rights and provide order in society. This is why the United States Constitution establishes a framework for government that checks the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches to ensure that no one person or entity becomes too powerful and can override the will of the people. This separation of power is known as the rule of law.

A fundamental challenge of the modern legal system is the ability to keep pace with technological, social and economic changes without sacrificing a commitment to justice and fairness. This challenge is exacerbated by globalization, which has created a need for more complex laws to govern cross-border transactions and to accommodate new cultural values. The development of more effective methods for educating lawyers to deal with these challenges is a critical part of the legal profession’s mission.

Law is found in every aspect of life, from the everyday act of buying a bus ticket to the complicated process of settling a commercial dispute. The countless facets of law reflect its central role in a democracy and the diverse needs of citizens. Labor law, for example, involves the regulation of relationships between workers, employers and trade unions; intellectual property law encompasses everything from a writer’s copyright to the right to patent a work of art; and evidence law decides which materials are admissible in court to build a case. All these fields of law, and countless others, are the subject of continuing research, discussion, and controversy. Law and the legal profession are thus important to the health of democratic societies.