KNOWLEDGE BASE Government - Law In The US

The information on this page was current at the time it was published. Regulations, trends, statistics, and other information are constantly changing. While we strive to update our Knowledge Base, we strongly suggest you use these pages as a general guide and be sure to verify any regulations, statistics, guidelines, or other information that are important to your efforts.


Government Structure, Legal Structure, and Legal Landscape


Government Structure

The United States Constitution divides the federal government into three branches to ensure no single branch has too much power. The three branches are:

  • the Legislative branch, or Congress, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives;

  • the Executive branch, made up of the president, vice president, and the Cabinet; and

  • the Judicial branch, made up of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court.


Legislative Branch

The legislative branch is responsible for enacting legislation, confirming or rejecting appointments, and has the authority to declare war. Members of Congress are voted in by American citizens. Congress is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are two elected senators from each state, for a total of 100 senators in the US. Senators serve a 6 year term and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual may serve. There are 435 elected members of the House of Representatives divided among the 50 states in proportion to the population of each state. In addition to this number, there are a number of non-voting delegates that represent the District of Columbia and the territories. Member of the House of Representatives serve a two year term and, like Senators, there is no limit to the number of terms an individual may serve.


Executive Branch

The executive branch is charged with carrying out and enforcing the laws of the US and generally administering the government. American citizens have the right to vote for the president and vice president. In addition to the president, vice president, and cabinet members, the executive also includes various executive departments, independent agencies, boards, commissions, and committees. The president leads the country as the head of state, leader of the federal government, and commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces. He or she is elected for a four year term and is limited to two terms. The vice president supports the president and becomes the president in the event the president is unable to serve. The vice president can serve an unlimited number of 4-year terms. Cabinet members serve as advisors to the president as heads of executive departments. Cabinet members are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by at least 51 members of the Senate.


Judicial Branch

The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws of the US and determining their constitutionality. The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The justices of the Supreme Court are, like cabinet members, nominated by the president and must be confirmed by at least 51 members of the Senate. Congress determines the number of justices that sit on the Supreme Court, currently there are nine justices. Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed for life, meaning until their death, retirement, or in exceptional circumstances removed. The US Constitution grants Congress the authority to establish other federal courts at its discretion. There are currently a number of lower federal courts in the US.


The US government is organized as a system of checks and balances. It is set up so the branches can check each other as follows:

Congress confirms or rejects the president’s appointments and can remove the president from office in exceptional circumstances.

The president can veto laws passed by Congress.

The nine justices of the Supreme Court, who are responsible for overturning unconstitutional laws, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.


Legal Structure

The United States legal system is a system of common law, meaning is relies heavily on legal precedent, i.e., prior court rulings. The US system is both a federal system and a state system, meaning jurisdiction is divided up between federal and state (which includes local) courts. Both courts and laws in the United States are organized hierarchically. US courts (federal and state), regulatory bodies, and governmental bodies work together to enforce the laws in the United States.



Because the United States is both a federal and a state system, you need to be aware that laws and regulations can be drastically different from state to state.



Legal Landscape

The courts in the United States are well respected around the world as being highly professional, honorable, and fairly efficient. The United States is widely regarded as one of the most expensive jurisdictions in the world. People unfamiliar with the US legal system are often surprised to see the near universal use of juries, even in the most complex cases. Because of the unpredictable nature of the jury trial, many litigants prefer to avoid trials and instead opt for alternative dispute resolution processes.

Mediation is either attempted or at least discussed in the majority of cases in the US. Judges will often strongly recommend that parties attempt to resolve their dispute through mediation before coming to court. Arbitration also has an important role in the US legal system, particularly for large commercial cases. Litigants seem to either prefer arbitration because it allows them to avoid juries or to prefer the courts because they then have appellate opportunities. The majority of commercial arbitrations occur in New York.


Court Costs and Legal Fees

Most legal fees in the US are charged on an hourly basis. However, today firms are more flexible in their fee arrangements and agreements. Contingency fees (a fee that is paid if the attorney is successful) are still common in the US. Many firms are also working on a fixed-fee basis (project basis). Fees vary drastically throughout the US and from firm to firm. Legal fees in the US are still rising, despite the weakening demand. This year, top law firms in New York City have reached $1,500 per hour.


KNOWLEDGE BASE Government - Law In The US