What is Law in Action?

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  • Written By: Staci A. Terry
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 09 February 2020
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Law in action is a legal theory that applies principles of law, as found in court cases and statutes, to real world situations. It is often associated with legal realism, which refers to law in action, and asks how a particular law or legal concept applies as a practical matter. Rather than focusing on the theory behind a law, law in action looks at the actual impact of a law on society in general.

The concept exists primarily today at the University of Wisconsin Law School, but also exists in some form in selected courses at other law schools throughout the world. Law school studies in the United States normally focus on appellate court cases as the basis for learning and studying principles of law. Under a law in action approach, however, the study of a particular court case goes beyond the facts of the specific case. The discussion centers on the impact of the court decision on the parties and on society as a whole, the public’s response to the decision, and the intersection of the decision and other laws that already exist.


Another method that law schools might use to incorporate the theory is to provide real-life clinical experiences for law students that expose them to the more practical side of practicing law. Most law schools provide elective courses that require students to put their legal skills into practice through legal clinics. In the course of these experiences, students under the supervision of a licensed attorney might actually perform work on real legal cases and represent clients in court in order to better prepare them for the practice of law following graduation from law school.

The thinking behind the legal theory of law in action is that students will be more adept at representing clients in the future if they learn more than just the laws and rules. Learning the rules is certainly important and necessary to a successful law career, but knowing the practical implications of those rules also is an essential skill for a lawyer. From a law in action perspective, then, learning the law is simply not sufficient to producing a competent lawyer. Memorizing rules is not the same as practicing law, and so actually requiring students to practice law while still in law school is more likely to produce a knowledgeable and skillful lawyer.


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Post 2

@Soulfox -- Law schools do not generally focus on those law in action concepts and I can't say that is altogether a bad thing. A lawyer is supposed to be an advocate for his or her client and not someone who feels limited by what people will think or whether a client is totally right or wrong.

I will give you an example. Just think about driving while intoxicated charges. It is probably best for society to make sure that anyone facing one of those charges is punished. We don't want to encourage people to crawl behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, so it is in society's best interests to deter people from engaging in that behavior.

That is all well and good, but it is not the lawyer's place to think about such things. The lawyer should be dedicated to defending his or her client to the best of his ability. That being the case, what is arguably good for society and what is good for the client are at odds. In those cases, the lawyer has to choose what is good for his or her client and not consider what is the best course of action to follow with regard to what is good for society. To do anything else would be unethical.

Post 1

I am very surprised to hear that all law schools don't implement some kind of law in action theories throughout their normal courses. Anyone who thinks that legal decisions don't have a substantial impact on society is living in a fool's paradise.

Heck, just focus on the abortion issue as an example. People have been debating the Supreme Court case (Roe v. Wade) that established the right to privacy and made abortion legal for decades. Is there any doubt that decision has a big impact on society? No, there is not. And the same is true of a lot of issues.

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