The law is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as "a rule made by a government that states how people may and may not behave in society and in business, and that often orders particular punishments if they do not obey." The creation and enforcement of laws is in many ways the foundational role of government, and it can be considered a defining feature of society as a whole. After all, what is more universally important than our collective definition of what is right and wrong?
We may share an intuitive sense of morality in the abstract - e.g., physically harming others or stealing from them is wrong and should be punished. However, differences over the details of exactly what is defined as a crime and what its consequences are have always been the subject of great debate, and having the power to determine the law is in a sense the objective of all politics.
Beyond the technical definition of the law, injustice in how law enforcement can sometimes work in practice - including inequalities in who is punished, how severely they are sentenced, and what legal services they have access to - have also animated social and political movements throughout history, such as the Civil Rights movement and Black Lives Matter.
Understanding both the "de jure" and "de facto" aspects of the law is thus essential to understanding how society works. It's knowledge you need for being an engaged citizen in a democracy - and, if you choose to pursue a career in law, for your job.
When you think of jobs in the legal field, the first thing that comes to mind might be the kind of high-powered lawyer or judge you see in courtroom dramas like Law & Order, The Practice, or Suits. Becoming a lawyer is a great career choice if you have the desire and ambition, with a median average annual salary of $120,910 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, you don't have to go to law school or work on your cross-examination skills to find a rewarding career in this field. Law offices rely on paralegals, legal secretaries, and numerous other "behind the scenes" professionals to provide lawyers with research and administrative support. And businesses often employ full-time compliance specialists to ensure that their operations avoid creating any legal risks.
Many politicians and other government policymakers also draw upon a background in law, either through a law degree or as part of a political science degree. And even if they themselves are not lawyers, Congresspeople and other elected representatives rely on legal experts on their staff to help them achieve their legislative goals effectively.
Online courses are a great fit for studying subjects in law, as the ability to complete coursework on a flexible schedule can be ideal for doing the close readings of legal texts required to develop expertise in this field. This flexibility is also helpful for learners that want to develop their skills in law while continuing to work full-time jobs.
Regardless of your specific focus, Coursera gives you the opportunity to learn from world-class institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and the University of Geneva. And you’ll get the same high-quality education as on-campus students at a significantly lower cost.
Learners do not need to have any special skills or experience before starting to learn law. An interest in the legal system is helpful, however. People with a background in government, human resources, risk management, and compliance are well suited to begin learning law.
An abstract thinker who can consider every side of an issue and wants what is fair and just is best suited for a role in law. People considering a role in law need to have an open mind and the ability to express themself clearly and concisely both verbally and through the written word. For some people, the best role in law involves representing clients in a criminal court. Some are more suited to work for a corporation as an attorney and advisor. Others may choose roles that focus on social justice and immigration reform.
Topics that explore human rights are related to law and may discuss issues surrounding children's rights and immigration status. For those interested in the business end of law, topics that examine taxes, contracts, privacy, and trademarks may be of interest to you. Topics exploring labor and employment are good considerations if you are interested in both the business and human sides of law. Criminal law delves into many topics, including incarceration, international law, understanding violence, forensic science, and psychology. Studying corporations and our planet Earth are related to environmental law and policy. There are many branches to law, and it’s important to consider which topic will most engage and inspire you before proceeding.
Lawyers may work for a nonprofit organization providing legal advice to disadvantaged individuals. For those interested in working in government, lawyers may work as prosecutors or public defense attorneys. Lawyers interested in politics may also choose to work in government counsel writing legal reviews, arguing cases for the government, and interpreting laws. Lawyers can also work full time for a corporation or as a teacher in a university. They can also have their own private practice.