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Introduction

Law and medicine are based on different professional paradigms. Medicine is a science-based profession. Since knowledge of medical science is both vast and imperfect, most medical decisions are based on experiential information combined with nondeterministic rational analysis (the art of medicine). Although all physicians recognize the importance of art in medicine, most also appreciate the scientific advances that reduce the necessity of art-based practice. Art is overemphasized because we ignore how much is predetermined by science and thus taken for granted in decision making.

Law is not based on a scientific paradigm. There have been efforts to bring social science and economic analysis techniques to bear on legal problems, but these have been of limited utility. The evolution of legal theory is a nonrational social process that most resembles religious disputation. One accepts a premise and then develops an intricate set of rules and theories based on that premise. We see Marxist-based legal systems, democratic-based legal systems, and legal systems such as Islamic law that are openly derived from religious beliefs. Understanding law and lawyers requires an appreciation of legal belief systems, as well as rules.

This chapter is a brief introduction to the U.S. legal system, one characterized by a complexity stemming from the high value Americans place on pluralism and the difficulties of maintaining an eighteenth-century system of government in the late twentieth century. For nonlawyers, the most perplexing aspect of the U.S. legal system is that it is not unified. There are two primary divisions: federal law and the laws of the fifty states. These systems are divided still further into civil, criminal, and administrative divisions. This chapter also reviews the problem of the cost of legal services and the uniquely American practice of contingent fees.


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