As we go through the education system, we all learn a little bit of literature, history, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. In my experience, I have not come across any education about law, not even the basics.
We would all agree that every person should be taught the basics of mathematics or they would be at a significant disadvantage in society. Similarly, there has to be basic knowledge about the law that every individual should know or they would be at a significant disadvantage in society.

For those of you who have studied law, what would you say is the bare minimum amount of knowledge about the law that every person in society should have in order to feel comfortable and also to prevent others from taking advantage of them (or perceive they are taken advantage of)? What are some resources available for ordinary individuals who want to acquire that basic understanding of the law without getting a full degree in law? Please provide any books, courses, articles that could be used for this self-study.

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    An interesting and difficult question. Also, law is an area where you almost certainly know more of it than you perceive yourself to know. A lot of law is just warmed over common sense or common knowledge. – ohwilleke Mar 26 at 5:56
  • Great questions; but not suitable to the Stack Exchange Q&A model. I am converting to community wiki to keep it from closing. – feetwet Mar 26 at 15:44
  • Doesn't a basic high school civics class teach a little fundamentals of law? – Jon Mar 26 at 16:50
  • Came across a free course from HarvardX. I think it is a good starting point. Contract Law: From Trust to Promise to Contract – Ali Mar 30 at 3:22

A lot, but let's be practical.

Or nothing, depending on how it is taught. I experienced the joy of obligatory 4th grade Spanish instruction, where there were virtually no Spanish-speaking teachers (they relied on a edu-tv show): it was not at all effective and didn't last a year. Teacher training on the subject matter is a big problem: so it should be taught like chemistry or high school health, and not mathematics or literature (focused class taught by an expert, for juniors or seniors). There used to be "high school civics" which taught a little bit of this, but primarily focused on politics and not the consequences of politics.

Before constructing a curriculum, you need a goal (well-articulated and reasoned, not just an emotional position like "it would be good to know this"). History and literature are more on the side of "that's what it means to be educated", whereas mathematics and grouse-trapping is more on the side of "survival basics". Elementary legal education is more on the side of survival skills, which means, given a choice of an hour on voir dire versus an hour on 4th Amendment search and seizure, the hour should be spent on search and seizure.

Although it is a bit abstract, elementary jurisprudence is one of those mixed survival-skill + abstract fundamentals that is so important that everybody should understand (some of) it. The reason is that it goes to the question "what is the law?". Most people believe incorrectly that "the law" is only that which was passed by Congress / the legislature, and there is very little appreciation for the necessity of interpreting the words of the law-givers. The concrete target of elementary jurisprudential education should be an understanding of why we have appellate courts.

Contract-reading would be rather high on the list of priorities, at least as long as attorneys are allowed to charge for their services and free legal advice is not deemed to be a fundamental constitutional entitlement. It is easy to say "you should have your attorney read that contract", but very few people do. The goal is to improve people's ability to understand the consequence of contracts so that they don't mindlessly agree to everything, given the reality that people are not going to take all of their contracts to a lawyer and ask if it's okay to sign. Every citizen should know when they are in over their heads and should hire a lawyer.

Also high on the list would be a solid understanding of "my rights as a citizen". People tend to intuit what the law is in terms of their feelings about "my rights", so if you feel that you have a right to barbecue a hamburger, then you will tend to think that it is legal to do so. It is therefore very important that every citizen have a solid understanding of what "your rights" are, and ways in which your feelings can be mistaken. Basic education on the Commerce Clause (and state relatives) is very important, given that the Commerce Clause is a major source of counterexamples to people's intuitions about their rights.

For the most part, I think you should study the law when you run into a situation where that particular law is relevant.

There are many laws that are intuitively obvious to most people. Like most of us know that it's wrong to steal, kidnap, murder, or rape. You may not know the details of those laws -- exactly what is the penalty for kidnapping, what's the difference between burglary and larceny, etc -- but you know these things are illegal. People who don't intuitively understand that these things are wrong are called "psychopaths".

When you get a drivers license, you need to learn traffic laws.

Right now I'm thinking that I want to make my driveway wider. So I'm doing a little checking on zoning laws about driveways.

If you start a business, there are regulations that you need to research and obey.

Etc.

These days, you can learn a great deal by searching the Internet. Many places now have the laws available on line. Reading the law and figuring out what it means can be tough, but at least it's there.

If it's more than idle curiosity and what-if's, you are probably wise to contact a lawyer. They'll charge you money, but presumably they know the law. You pay for their expertise.

Little to None

Most people’s lives can be successfully led with little to no knowledge of the law. Just like medical knowledge the only thing you really need to know is when things aren’t right and you need to consult a professional.

Most people know enough to consult a lawyer when buying property, making a will or getting divorced. Similarly, most who come into contact with the criminal justice system or become involved in a civil dispute seek legal advice.

Anyone wanting to go into business would be wise to learn the basics of business, contract and employment law - it can avoid unpleasant surprises.

  • Even if I was not trying to get into business, I would think that contract law is something worth knowing a little about. What are some resources that an individual can use to learn about contract and employment laws? (Trustworthy resources) – Ali Mar 26 at 10:40
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    What about those who come into contact with the criminal justice system because they did something they thought was legal but it turned out it was not? Ignorantia legis non excusat. – Philipp Mar 26 at 10:59
  • This is a joke. Even a tiny bit more of knowledge of the law (not of a specific statute, but "law" as in the general field of study) would have exponentially greater returns for society as a whole and for those individuals. So many people wind up in major trouble because of an ignorance of basic legal principles. We encounter issues of the law in every aspect of life every day. Nobody goes through life not facing some major legal issue or another, from probate to contract law. It's a laughable assertion that anybody goes through life just fine with no use for knowledge of law. – A.fm. Mar 26 at 17:28
  • @Philipp I refer you to the second sentence of the second paragraph – Dale M Mar 26 at 20:07
  • @A.fm. I respectfully disagree - a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In health it gives us homeopathy, in law it gives us self-represented litigants- neither are of benefit to society or the individual. – Dale M Mar 26 at 20:13

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