Should we be identifying and spotlighting our superstar associates? Recent research may be pointing to an unexpected answer. 

Economic tournament theory addresses competitive situations where success is based on relative rather than absolute performance (think sports games vs. standardized test results).  While competitive situations can often lead to motivated employees who work hard for top spots, recent research has found that the presence of a "superstar" can reverse that dynamic, making the competitors give up in the face of likely defeat.

Jonah Lehrer’s article in the April 3-4 weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal specifically raises the question as to whether these recent findings in tournament theory about the disabling effect of superstars might account for, among other things, lackluster performance of associates in law firms. Given that this particular tournament often ends in an up-or-out decision (particularly given the recent trends), and that the number of lawyers who make partner will be even fewer than the historical few, the supposition is made that once associates recognize they are not up to a superstar level, they may actually lower than performance. 

As further ammunition for that concern, we note that the recent trend toward merit-based promotion and compensation systems will make the superstars more apparent to everyone in the firm and also earlier than under the old lock-step system.  So what do we do now?

Lehrer’s article implies that hiring the "best" candidate, if it means someone who will leave the others in the dust, might not be the best approach.  Should firms really consider such a "not the best" approach?

We would make a more pointed recommendation–hiring only those candidates who can truly compete will keep the tournament in a healthy realm.  Firms can start by hiring a smaller class that they heavily invest in (in terms of assessing initial strengths and weaknesses, providing professional development and supporting personal morale).  Couple that increased "glue" with the possibility of a larger proportion of the smaller group being likely to make partner, and firms are likely to be well on the way to a harder working associate group.  And that scenario is consistent with other trends encouraging lower leverage.

A win/win all around.