Introduction to Law (an outline)
by John Bandler
This is an outline (with some factual nuggets) that I use to introduce law to non-lawyers. Some knowledge of law is important for everyone living in our country, which is a country of laws and process.
1.1. Thinking about laws and rules and
Think of laws and our legal system are simply types of rules for people and society (link to my other article on Rules below).
Questions to get us thinking:
- How long have societies been creating rules and laws?
- What is law?
- What is the purpose of law?
- How would societies govern conduct of individuals without laws?
- How would we resolve disputes without laws?
- Why do we have lawyers?
There are two sayings to think about regarding the law and lawyers. Consider what they might mean, including alternate interpretations.
- "The law is a[n] ass - a idiot." (See Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble speaking).
- "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." (See William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2).
1.2 Where do laws come from? (Sources of law)
Sources of law include:
- US Constitution and state Constitutions
- Statutes (legislation)
- Common law (judge made law)'
- US (federal) and states
The U.S. Constitution is the highest law in the United States. It establishes our system of government, with three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), and a system of checks and balances. It also limits the power of government, and guarantees certain rights to the people. There are amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights (Amendments 1-10). The First Amendment protects us from government restrictions on speech, religion and more. The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure by the government.
How is a law (statute) passed in the U.S.?
What is a regulation?
1.3 Bodies of law (areas of law) include:
- Constitutional law
- Criminal law
- Civil law (a broad category that includes many of the below)
- Tort law
- Intentional torts
- Negligence torts
- Contract law
- Property law
- Cybersecurity Law
- Privacy law
- Regulatory law
- Intellectual property law
- Employment law
- International law
- Law of international conflict (warfare)
- Maritime law
2. The U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and other Amendments
The U.S. Constitution is our country's foundational law which establishes our system of government and many rights, and it deserves it's own section.
Government laws, regulations, and actions cannot conflict with the Constitution, since the Constitution is the highest law of the land. Of course, interpreting what is "constitutional" is an evolving concept and subject to change.
The first ten Amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment includes freedom of speech from excessive governmental restriction. The Fourth Amendment includes freedom from excessive governmental search and seizure.
More in my separate article on this.
3. Criminal law (substance and procedure)
Who investigates and prosecutes crimes?
- State: State criminal statutes applied in a state court. A state/local prosecutor and usually by state and local law enforcement.
- Federal: Federal criminal statutes applied in a criminal court. A federal prosecutor and usually federal law enforcement.
What is the difference between a state criminal prosecution and a federal criminal prosecution?
3.1 Substantive criminal law
Every crime has “elements”. Those elements (almost always) include:
- Act (or sometimes an omission to act) – Actus Reus
- Culpable mental state – Mens rea
- Intent vs Motive
- Criminal negligence
- Other elements as laid out in the statute
Even if a person commits every element of a crime, they may be able to raise a defense, such as:
- Justification (e.g. self defense)
- Mental disease/defect (insanity)
3.2 Procedural criminal law
The criminal prosecution process
- Parties: Gov't vs. individual (or entity)
- Grand Jury
- The prosecution process (litigation)
- Indictment (not always in this order)
- Motions (see Fourth Amendment)
- Burden of proof
- Asset forfeiture (civil)
Part of the procedure involves evidence gathering and the Fourth Amendment (see next).
3.3 The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. Fourth Amendment law is a body of criminal constitutional law that restricts how the government can collect evidence, protecting rights of individuals. It includes:
- Expectation of privacy from government intrusion (compare this concept with civil privacy, which is different)
- Search warrant requirement
- Exceptions to the search warrant requirement
- Workplace searches and monitoring
- Private searches vs public searches
The exclusionary rule means that if law enforcement collects evidence illegally or unlawfully, the evidence will be excluded (suppressed) and cannot be used at trial. This includes:
- Physical evidence (Mapp)
- Unlawful arrest (Dunaway, seizure of person)
- Statements/confessions (Jackson-Denno/Huntley)
- Identification of a defendant by a witness (Wade)
- Fruit of the poisonous tree
4. Civil law and procedure
4.1 Civil procedure, including the civil litigation process
- Pre litigation
- Motion to dismiss
- Answer to the complaint
- Summary judgment motion
Note burdens of proof at each stage, and compare it with criminal law.
4.2 Civil causes of action
- Torts ("wrongs")
- Intentional torts ("wrongs")
- Negligent torts ("wrongs")
- Elements: Duty to plaintiff, breach of that duty, proximate causation of damages
- Premises liability – duty of landlord/property manager regarding crime
- Breach of contract
- Contract elements = offer and acceptance and consideration (and does not violate public interest/policy)
- Statutory civil causes of action
4.3 Misc. civil law
Data law (cybersecurity, privacy, data breach notification, data disposal)
Intellectual property law (copyright, trademark, patent, trade secrets)
Business law and managing a business
Regulatory law (licensing and regulation)
- Laws, regulations requiring certain conduct
- Government as plaintiff
- Regulation (financial, AML, cybersecurity, health, consumer protection)
5. Law of warfare and international conflict
Laws of sovereignty, starting a war, conducting a war, cyberconflict, and more.
Yes, there's laws about this too. Of course, not every country follows them.
6. Other legal concepts and background
Somewhat of my first miscellaneous section. Legal terms you may hear.
- Burdens of proof (at trial and various other stages in a proceeding)
- Standard of review (by a court)
- Res judicata (the thing stands decided). This dispute, these facts are already decided.
- Stare decisis (precedent, the legal authority of a decision, which contributes to "case law")
- Evidence types
- Direct vs circumstantial (which is “better”?)
- Evidence admissibility
- Lack of undue prejudice
- Hearsay rule: The law prefers live testimony, statements made in court, under oath, subject to cross examination, so the fact finder can assess credibility (jury or judge).
- Exceptions to the hearsay rule include
- business records exception
- present sense impression
- excited utterance
- statement by a party opponent
6.2 Our nation of laws means citizens have their own role and constitutional duties
A duty to vote means we select our government officials, and implies a duty to cast an informed, knowledgeable, and reasoned vote.
A duty to serve on juries means we play an important role in the justice system, and implies a duty to show up and serve in good faith, keep an open mind, hear the facts, follow the law as instructed by the judge.
6.3 Reading (“briefing”) a case
When reading a case decision (which was written by one or more judges), consider these things about the decision.
- Identify caption/title of case (lists parties)
- Identify the citation of case (how to cite it, find it)
- Identify court issuing the opinion (trial court, appellate court, state or federal, location, etc.)
- What type of case is it? (civil, criminal, regulatory)
- Who are the parties? (Plaintiff, defendant, appellant, appellee, etc.)
- What are the facts of the case? (e.g. what happened before the case got to court)
- What facts are agreed upon. What facts are in dispute?
- What is the prior procedure of the legal case? (How did the case start in the legal system, and where has it been to get to here)
- Who wrote the main opinion, are there concurrences or dissents?
- What issues and laws are being interpreted and decided? How are they decided?
- What level of authority/precedent does this ruling carry? (Binding upon the U.S.? Upon a state? Highly or mildly persuasive? etc.)
- Summarize the court’s holding (ruling on law) in one or two sentences.
6.4 When you need a lawyer and how to find a good one
7. Some of my favorite movie and TV clips relating to law are from:
- The Paper Chase, 1973
- A movie scene about the first class of law school, the Socratic Method, discuss Hawkins v. Mcgee, and an older style of law school where student embarrassment was a part of the experience, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCkMDvikGNM
- Socratic method (a/k/a inquisition) explained, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQLW7v3s7KQ
- My Cousin Vinny
- Clips about money laundering
- See my Virtual Currency Presentation page for clips on money laundering from
- The Wire
- Breaking Bad
- See my Virtual Currency Presentation page for clips on money laundering from
8. Learning more about law, finding cases and statutes
- This site, including my Helpful Legal Links and References * * * *
- Google Scholar https://scholar.google.com/
- Cornell Law School and their Legal Information Institute (LII) https://www.law.cornell.edu/
- Statutes https://www.law.cornell.edu/statutes
- Federal statutes - U.S. Code https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text
- Federal regulations - CFR https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text
- State regulations https://www.law.cornell.edu/regulations
- Wex, their legal dictionary and legal encyclopedia https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex
- Government sites
- Other free (reputable) online resources
- Paid legal services/databases
- My course on "Introduction to Law" at Udemy (look for a coupon code, current and past students can get a free coupon code)
Unfortunately, statutes and cases can be difficult to read and understand, but it is worth the effort to try. Some lawyers--including judges-- could improve the clarity and simplicity of their writing.
A judge's decision in a case creates law (known as "case law", or perhaps "common law"), but also remember that every case is unique and of varying "precedent".
Of course, this is an outline with some talking points, and not a full article. See chapter 5 of my Cybercrime Investigations book for an in depth approach. And this is not legal advice nor tailored to your circumstances.
10. My articles on this site
- U.S. Constitution
- Negligence law
- Contract law
- Introduction to Law (Outline) (This Article)
- Introduction to law things to know
- Cybersecurity Laws and Regulations Part 1
- Intellectual property law
- Business Basics and Law
- Helpful Legal Links and References
- Policies, Procedures, and Governance of an Organization
- New York Cybersecurity Requirements and the SHIELD Act
- About the CIPP/US Certification and How to Study for It (a privacy certification that requires considerable knowledge of law)
- Virtual Currency (including digital currency, cryptocurrency, virtual assets, and "value that substitutes for currency")
- Free Speech, the First Amendment, and Social Media (2)
- Cybercrime Investigations, Chapter 5, Fundamental Principles of Criminal and Civil Law
- Cybersecurity Laws and Regulations Part 1 (general legal overview)
- Cybersecurity Laws and Regulations Part 2 (listing and brief summary of some laws and regulations)
- Students, Learning, and Teaching
11. My online course at Udemy
- See my course on "Introduction to Law" at Udemy
- See my page on this site about my Udemy course (including coupon codes)
This article is hosted at https://johnbandler.com/introduction-to-law-outline, copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.
A version of this article is also available on Medium, at https://johnbandler.medium.com/introduction-to-law-outline-3a7e6171596e (though perhaps not kept as current, and not formatted as well).
Posted 2/1/2021. Updated 8/29/2023.