Guest blog: Philip Wood CBE, QC (Hon) on The Rise of the Lawyers

21 April 2016

Philip Wood CBE QC (Hon)

Philip Wood, CBE, QC (Hon)

If you think about it, it's obvious. The law is the most important ideology we have.  You can have a society without a philosophy or a religion - and many countries have secularised.  But you cannot have a society without law.  Like many platitudes, the statement may at first seem outrageous until it dawns that it is true.  Just as the platitude that the earth goes round the sun was at first shocking, but then obviously correct.

The law is fundamental to survival and prosperity.  It is potent as to whether it restricts us or liberates us - or restricts us so as to liberate us.

By the law, I mean the whole of the law, including the grand edifices of wholesale financial and corporate law.

Laws can be good or bad.  You measure the morality of a society, its credentials, and its civilisation by its laws.

At first sight, things are not looking too good for us.  The nearest star is 25,000 billion miles away (40,000 billion km).  We are lonely, out here on this tiny planet.  We are hardly even a shiver or a shimmer or a momentary vibration in the dark nullity, we are almost nothing. 

And yet we are here.  Something amazing happened on this nothing planet.  We may be the only intelligence in the universe.  If the universe has no plan for us, then we have to have a plan for ourselves.  

We can only survive for the necessary time by maintaining a moral order.  

Many countries are now quite secular.  But the law is the one universal secular religion which practically everybody believes in.  The law now carries forward the flame of morality.

Most of the modern realms of law are of enormous contemporary importance.  Examples are the law relating to political democracies, the rule of law and the law between states.  Such matters as money, corporations, banks, insurance companies, central banking and taxation are at the centre of our affairs. 

That applies also to the bankruptcy of corporations and sovereign states, to equity and capital markets and to the massive regulatory regimes which dominate our legal systems.  All these areas of law are drenched with morality, with ethical views, often in violent opposition, but ethical and moral all the same. 

The modern domains of law, if badly framed or badly executed, can have devastating consequences on people's lives and can cripple whole societies.  The scope of the law and the things it has to do go far beyond the basic crimes and sexual morality. 

Thus, money, banks and corporations are fundamental in modern societies.  Without them we would not have a society at all.  If we didn't want them, we could blot them out with a jab on the delete key.  But we don't. They are some of the most ingenious creations of the law.  If we did not have them, there would be nothing on the plate for breakfast.

The law does not offer the consolations of religion. But the rule of law empowers and liberates us and makes it possible for us to do things in peace. It enables us to pursue happiness. It gives us the order and freedom to pursue a greater goal.  

We have law in order to survive.  We have a duty to survive in order to discover if there is ultimate meaning, to answer the questions, to ensure our permanent survival if we can.  You don't have to read vast books on jurisprudence to know that. 

There are probably seven to ten million lawyers in the world, on average about one per 1000 people down to one per 700 people. There has been a huge increase in the number of lawyers in past decades. 

Lawyers who deal in disputes are at the heart of the project. They deal with ideology in flight.  Although they may inhabit all the wings of the political spectrum, they are servants of a higher and more noble idea, the rule of law.

So what are we to make of all this? Lawyers should get serious about what they do, about their mission in life.  


Philip R Wood CBE, QC (Hon) is the author of " The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers" (Bloomsbury/Hart 2016), author of another 18 books, head of the Allen & Overy Global Law Intelligence Unit, former partner in the firm and visiting professor or fellow of Oxford, Cambridge and London Universities.