Law is the body of customs and practices, enforceable by the state or its agents, that establishes the order of society. It is often considered a central element in any modern democratic system and serves the important functions of keeping peace, maintaining social stability, protecting individual rights and enabling ordered social change. It is also a key tool for addressing issues such as economic development, poverty, and the environment. Different systems of law serve these purposes differently, but all law is the result of political action and is shaped by the political context in which it is created.
Law encompasses many fields of legal practice and study, including administrative law; air law; banking law; bankruptcy; contract law; commercial law; family law; international law; maritime law; medical jurisprudence; and property law. The study of law involves examining how legal principles are applied in real-life situations and how the legal system develops over time. It also involves analyzing the morality of laws and how they affect society as a whole.
The legal profession is often described as a “power-driven” profession and the field of law studies is a natural fit for those interested in power, authority, and ethics. Law students and faculty study the ways that people have gained, lost, or fought for power through institutions such as courts, legislatures, corporations, governments, and the military. They also explore the ethical and moral issues that arise when those powers are used to limit liberty or impose punishment for crime or other wrongdoing.
A core aspect of any legal system is the rule of law, which requires that all persons and entities are subject to publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated laws that are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. For example, in the United States, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee or job applicant on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age, or disability.
There are many philosophies of law that guide legal practitioners and scholars in their work. For instance, Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall advocate a theory of law that they call the “claim-rights” theory of rights. This theory emphasizes that right-holders have a claim to a good or service if it is correlative to a duty owed to them by others.
Taking an historical perspective is critical to understanding the law as it exists today. For example, a lawyer investigating or prosecuting an employment discrimination case will be better prepared if they have studied the historical context of women’s property rights and the suffrage movement. In addition, a legal scholar who wants to understand the current debate over repatriation of Native American artifacts will benefit from studying the legal history of the issue. Stanford’s law and history community includes many distinguished professors, such as Daniel Hulsebosch, who studies colonial and imperial legal histories, and Noah Rosenblum, who works on the history of law and government.