“The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers”

Not so long ago I had the great pleasure of being invited by the eminent lawyer, Professor Philip R. Wood, to discuss a book that he had nearly completed at that time, specifically as to which publisher might be most appropriate for what he had in mind. I was fascinated by what he described and was delighted to be able to point him in the direction of Hart Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Professional and in turn Bloomsbury Publishing. He was kind enough to include a reference to me in the book’s acknowledgements page.

Philip Wood CBE, QC (Hon) is head of the Global Law Intelligence Unit and a special global counsel at Allen & Overy in the City of London and a distinguished legal academic. I had the honour some years ago at Sweet and Maxwell of commissioning and managing his first two of many law books, The Law and Practice of International Finance and English and International Set-off. Both books were, in our terms, phenomenally successful and, for me, the whole experience was hugely memorable. For these reasons, while I cannot be said personally to be disinterested or entirely objective in reviewing his new book, that need not detract from its excellence.

His recently published work is more of a labour of love, if not necessity and although addressing many issues of law, should not be defined as a law book in the traditional sense. The author describes in his preface those factors which gave him little choice but to write the book which had been long on his mind. Lawyers and others with an interest in the law owe him a great debt for what he has produced.

The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers, in its most readable 273 pages, presents and pursues the proposition suggested in its title, namely that the era of the clerics and religious belief has long-since passed as a means of creating laws to manage behaviour and it is left to the law and lawyers to do a significantly more competent and comprehensive job. Calm and detailed in its forensic analysis, the book in its 19 chapters explores the purposes of morality and law, explaining the historical backgrounds to their evolution. Professor Wood plots the rational and logical route from superstition to a framework for our continued existence. He goes so far even to define the very purpose of our existence, “If we are alone in this universe, we have a unique responsibility to stay alive”. Using a range of sources from classical art, via legal and biblical analysis to economic and statistical data throughout the book, the author shows that it is law, rather than religion that directs behaviours and offers protection to support the means for society to be sustained.

For those who might be initially inclined to disagree, Philip Wood explains that by around 900CE the great religions had more or less settled their moral systems and had little to contribute to the creation of rules that followed in an ever-evolving world. Taking the pace of change in science, technology, population growth, commerce and finance from around 1830 as the pivotal time, nothing that religion could offer has been able to match the complexity of human need and its reliance upon laws. At its best, religion sought to offer bodies of rules in the narrowest and most simplistic fields of endeavour, such as family and sexual morality, food, hygiene, appearance, dress, as well in relation to the basics of murder, theft, honesty and respect. But this is a mere sliver compared to the complexity of laws to embrace the innumerable activities that require to be addressed by law. The lawyers need to go where the priests could never had imagined.

The book takes what is to the atheist a mercifully few number of pages, 53 in all, to explain perfectly acceptably the core characteristics of the key Eastern and Western religions from historical and beliefs perspectives. A publishing business of which I am a director, Dunedin Academic Press, still aiming for brevity, requires around 10 books, 9 authors and over 1500 pages to describe more or less the same mythology, so my gratitude is due. In his chapters on the families of law and a description of what he means by secular law, Philip Wood is not, I suspect, aiming at the most serious legal reader but more at non-lawyers. Still, they are no less for their clarity. He is very much at home when he examines how the scope of law has advanced far beyond that of religions in the development and operation of money, banks and corporations. Here the City of London lawyer is in evidence, where he sees the world from that perspective. His optimism about the role of the lawmakers perhaps slightly underplays those areas in which people’s lives are more likely to be harmed by or oppressed, rather than improved by rules conceived for hypocritical or commercial purposes, although he does address briefly the problem of the enactment of bad or wicked laws. Very much the benevolent capitalist, he opines, “Karl Marx totally misunderstood the role of capitalism. One of the main features of capitalism is a system for sharing the money of the people in an efficient and useful way which is also just……Communism was a system for expropriation by despots”. Discuss! Nevertheless, what is obvious is that religion is in no sense a competitor to the law in addressing these issues.

Professor Wood deals well with the chicken and egg question of the sources of our morality, writing that “morality is not a creation of religion and is not exclusive to religion”. He cites examples of ancient bodies of secular law that were picked up by the religious lawmakers and progressively passed backwards and forwards. On the issue of the ideal of modern separation between Church and State, in my view, some of his examples of where this is not entirely the case are a little too forgiving.

It is interesting that at no time in the book does the author explicitly reveal his own personal position on the absurdities of religious belief, superstition and spiritualism, save for his admission, “If, as I believe, survival is our fundamental aim, then it is to the law that we can turn for the means”. No doubt, however, by the end of the book, the final score shows a clear and deserved victory for the lawyers over the priests. He takes the responsibility seriously, though, writing “because of the role that law plays, lawyers have duties to our societies beyond the normal”. In his penultimate chapter entitled “A Way of Living”, he offers an interesting seven propositions for that purpose. I think, though, that ultimately the subjective nature of them leaves little room for comment by me, save to say that perhaps there is merit in everyone drafting his or her own ungodly body of rules to guide their professional or personal lives.

In summary, Philip Wood has written something of a page-turner with The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers. It strikes me as a “must-read” for lawyers and many others and the book deserves enormous market success. Religious fanatics and fundamentalists probably will not like it. For me, in a book of this nature, the absence of an index is disappointing and ought to have been key in providing signposting to content. It in no way detracts, however, from the value of the core propositions of the work.

The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers is published by Hart Publishing/Bloomsbury. The ISBN for the print hardback version is 9781509905546 but eBook versions are also available. Its price is GB£25 or US$42.


  1. “The Fall of Priests and Rise of Lawyers” should be thought-provoking especially if coupled with Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order.