What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Societal viewpoints on the nature of laws focus on such concepts as reason, justice, morality, order, and honesty. Judicial views on the nature of law concentrate on specifics such as policies, statutes, guidelines, and rules.

Laws can be enforced by a government, a private entity, or by individuals. Government-enforced laws can be made by a legislative group or individual legislators, resulting in statutes; by executive decrees or regulations; and through the judiciary, with decisions establishing legal precedent called stare decisis. Privately enforced laws can include contractual agreements, arbitration, and alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation.

Whether laws are natural, divine, or man-made, they serve several fundamental purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Some of these objectives are better served by some types of governments than others, although even the best-designed legal systems can be corrupted by political and economic pressures (see censorship; crime and punishment; and police).

The principle of the rule of law, which guarantees citizens freedoms of thought, expression, and association, is an essential component to a free society. The rule of law also ensures that the government is transparent and accessible, so that citizens can collaborate with the government to improve public services, report on their government’s activities, and receive timely information about those actions.

While laws are important for a functioning democracy, they can be difficult to establish and maintain in practice. Governments must balance the competing interests of liberty and security, so that citizens can trust in the impartiality of the courts and in the government’s ability to resolve disputes fairly.

To accomplish these goals, some governments require repressive tactics, such as censorship, detention without trial, and repression of minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a democracy requires a system of laws that is consistent and predictable, so that people can expect that they will be treated in a fair manner regardless of their social status or political affiliations.

Some people are attracted to the idea of a career in law, which can be exciting and rewarding. However, before taking on the challenges and responsibilities of a career in law, it is important to take time to assess realistically your performance abilities and motivations. It is particularly critical to have a clear understanding of how a law degree might affect your financial prospects in the future. Moreover, you should consider the time commitment involved in studying law and whether you are willing to dedicate the necessary amount of energy. It is also a good idea to explore career options in other fields that may be more suited to your skills and interests.