The legal industry is in the midst of challenging and exciting times. To many firms, so much change and uncertainty may feel like a bit of a crisis, while others see it as more of an opportunity. Regardless of how you see it, it’s certainly a time of upheaval.

I have finally gotten around to reading Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” which has been lounging on my bookshelf for the better part of several years. While there are many lessons in the book that firms looking to become “great” should take to heart, there was one observation that the authors made that really struck me as relevant for firms in today’s marketplace – the Stockdale Paradox.

Collins observes that every “good to great” company they examined in the course of the book’s research had faced “significant adversity.” The difference between those companies who became great, and those companies who didn’t is what Collins refers to as the “Stockdale Paradox.”

Before we jump into that, a note about the good to great companies – Collins points out throughout the book that these companies become great due to a variety of consistent factors, which he outlines in the book, and despite external ones. So in case your first impulse is to think that a firm can only become truly great when the industry is supporting it, the evidence points out that it’s often in spite of industry challenges – which means that the legal industry is ready for some truly great firms to emerge.

What is the Stockdale Paradox then? It’s a psychological duality:

On one hand, [companies] stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts.”

This isn’t about optimism though, cautions Collins. He delves into the paradox’s namesake, Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking US military officer to be imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam during the Vietnamese war. Meeting with Stockdale himself, Collins learned that it wasn’t the optimists who survived their time and torture there – it was those who understood what they were facing, but believed they would eventually get out. Stockdale said:

’This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’”

It seems a bit extreme to compare what Admiral Stockdale went through during Vietnam to what companies and firms face in every day business, but his words can teach us a valuable lesson.

For lawyers and law firms today, there are many who are still in denial about change. They hope to squeak by to retirement without having to dramatically alter the way that they do business. And they may just succeed (though their firms will be the worse for it). For other firms, they understand that changes are ahead of us, but they haven’t yet confronted what Collins refers to as the “brutal facts of reality,” and seriously examined the industry, their firms, their capabilities, and what they can offer in this new marketplace to be truly great. Some of them are hoping to get by with small changes and concessions, with the belief that maybe the industry will calm down and go back to the way things were.

But there are a small few who understand this paradox. They’ve looked at the way they do business, they’re confronting the brutal facts of what they could be great at, and they know that although it may not happen overnight and although they may not even be able to put a timetable on the changes within their firms, they will ultimately prevail. They believe they can be great – and so they will.

These discussions and ideas are uncomfortable. They require us to grow, to stretch, to look at the ugly things about our firms that we sweep to the side, and to confront the ideas that what we currently focus on may not be what we should focus on in the future. It’s hard. And it’s not for the weak.

But if we challenge ourselves, in these challenging times, we can become great too.