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When the history of the modern law firm gets written — remember, there are Ph.D. candidates born every day — one of the key turning points will be the advent of the professional executive directors or as they’re now known, the chief operating officers. Today, 30 years after iconic COO Earle Yaffa was just a gleam in Skadden Arps’ eye, these executives have established themselves as central figures in the biggest and most ambitious firms, key players who don’t always have votes but clearly have voices, who sit at the proverbial adult table and, perhaps as importantly, who receive paychecks that signal their status as partners in everything but name.

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