In the last 30 years, The Am Law 200 has increasingly come to resemble corporate America—with the profits and global footprint to match. Guiding this transition behind the scenes is a phalanx of "C-suite" professionals, such as chief marketing officers, chief revenue officers, and chief operating officers. These men and women walked through a door that was opened by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom's Earle Yaffa. He became Skadden's first and only managing director in 1980. And because of Yaffa's success in such a sensitive role, other firms opted to follow Skadden's model and appoint people with business expertise to prominent management jobs.
In 1979 Skadden brought in Yaffa, then at Arthur Young & Co., to overhaul the firm's IT systems. A year later, he came on full-time as the firm's managing director. Yaffa worked on strategy and assumed oversight of all nonlegal aspects of the firm, including operations, finance, and technology. As Skadden grew from 200 lawyers in 1980 to more than 800 lawyers in 1987, he jumped into analyzing the competitive landscape and designing a customized billing and financial reporting system to track collections, realization, and profitability. "Yaffa thought about law firm finances in a way others hadn't—running a firm by financial metrics—and measuring a firm's success by finances," says law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser.
The self-effacing managing director certainly interacted with the lawyers. At Skadden he provided a sounding board to partners who knew they could test ideas with him before approaching the firm's leadership. He also worked intimately with the firm's managing partner, whom Skadden calls its "executive partner." He spent 14 years side by side with Peter Mullen, 15 years with Robert Sheehan, and the past four years with current executive partner Eric Friedman. "Without having a strong executive partner, we couldn't have done as much as Skadden has done," Yaffa says.
But the most important contribution Yaffa made is that he left the lawyers alone to practice law. By focusing on all the other aspects of running what is now a $2 billion business with some 1,700 attorneys, Yaffa helped make Skadden the firm that it is today.