It is not a new debate, but the question is perhaps more relevant than it has ever been before: Should lawyers or business wizards manage law firms?

A recent article by Casey Sullivan in Bloomberg Big Law Business profiles chief operating officers at major US law firms that have chosen to put business and finance experts in charge of operations, rather than lawyers. Interviewees include Craig Courter at Katten Muchin Rosenman, John Yoshimura at McDermott Will & Emery, and Victor Núñez, COO of the Americas at White & Case. These individuals discuss the challenges they face – including the not-unexpected skepticism of many lawyers – as they work to advance cutting-edge business practices in law-firm settings.

Many lawyers believe that only someone trained in the law can properly address such issues as attracting clients and hiring new lawyers. However, as big law firms become larger and more global, as law-related technology grows increasingly powerful and influential, and as competition becomes more intense – both among law firms and between the law and other sectors – many firms are reassessing their long-held theories regarding who can best maximize such areas as client development, marketing, and human resources, not to mention financial operations.

The debate about who should run the show in law firms speaks not only to the evolution of the profession, but also to the need for more business courses in law schools and a greater emphasis on business topics in professional development training. Whether a law firm is managed by a lawyer or a business expert, the basic principles of successful business operations cannot be overlooked by any firm that hopes to turn a profit.

Note: See next week’s post for an example of a very successful law-firm leader who is not himself a lawyer. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on this or any other matter related to the law, either in the comments section below or directly via email.