An Introduction to American Law

This course will give you a glimpse into six different areas of American law: Tort Law, Contract Law, Property, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Civil Procedure. You will gain insight into the complexities and dilemmas that arise from the application of law in different settings, and what is distinctive about American approaches.

About The Course

In this course, we have asked six of our best teachers to give you a window into what we teach our first-year Law students at Penn.  We will cover the basic ideas and principles behind core elements of U.S. law, including Tort Law, Contract Law, Property, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Civil Procedure.     

Throughout the course, we will also introduce you to some of the great philosophical questions of the law:

  • How is the law used to help people achieve their goals? 
  • How is the law used to protect people?  From each other? From the state?  
  • What is the line between conduct that we wish to discourage and conduct that we make criminal?  
  • What is the difference between the rights created by contracts and rights created by property?  
  • Which of our agreements is legally enforceable and why? 

To answer these questions we will look at Tort Law, which is the area of civil law imposing liability when we injure strangers.  We will discuss Contract Law, which governs our agreements with others, or, as we’ll learn, only some of them.  We will examine Property Law, the law of things.  These are some of the main building blocks of what is known as “private law.” 

Next we'll look at law involving the state, what is known as “public law.”  Criminal Law, like Tort Law, regulates our relations with strangers, but, unlike Tort Law, involves the police, public prosecutors and, ultimately, prison.  It involves the full power of the state. 

Constitutional Law is likewise public law, but of a very different sort:  as we will learn, it creates power and regulates the power it creates.  It is how we – We the People, if you will – constitute ourselves as a sovereign self-governing nation.

Civil Procedure sets the rules for how you bring civil cases.  As lawyers learn early on, the only rights you really have are the ones you can enforce, and whether and how you can enforce them is the subject of Procedure.

For each of these areas, you will also begin to learn what is distinctive about American approaches and thus, a bit about what is distinctive about America.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need any background in law to take this course?
No prior knowledge of the law is required to take this course.  The content of this course is a sampling of what we teach our first-year law students at Penn.

If I reside outside the U.S., is this course still relevant?
Yes.  We will cover the basic principles of these six areas of law and introduce you to what is distinctive about American law which includes examples of how American law contrasts to laws in other countries.