Hazards of Being a Chameleon

 “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Years ago, I learned something about the hazards of being a chameleon.  At the time, I lived in an undergraduate dorm where I was the resident advisor.  I was a kind of live-in cop, keeping order and enforcing a curfew among the freshmen living there.

My years as a resident advisor were often wild and woolly, including one evening when several boys returned from an outing, brandishing a stolen railroad crossing sign.  The boys on the floor greeted them with enthusiasm, cheering their feat.

I questioned what I should do, what instruction or “advice” should I provide.  As I gathered the boys to an impromptu meeting, I thought it best to speak in the vernacular of the day, using their language, not my own.

When the meeting was over, one of the boys stayed behind and approached me.  He asked me if I spoke to my friends as I had spoken to them.  “No, not really”, I replied.  He then asked me not to speak to them again in that way.  Instead, he asked me to speak to them as I ordinarily spoke to others.

I am grateful for the request made of me that day.  I don’t recall that freshman’s name, nor do I know what became of him.  His advice was important then and is important to me now.  In that exchange, I learned the risk of assuming an identity other than my own, of speaking in a way foreign to me.  I had been a chameleon of sorts and had been found out.

Have you ever been a chameleon of sorts?  Conspired to be someone you are not?

One recurring opportunity to be a chameleon is in a job interview.  With the research done and a job description in hand, the job applicant often seeks to contort himself into the confines of the job description.  He seeks to assume the identity of the person they are seeking.

If the job applicant convinces them that he is the person they want, I wonder how long he can stay in role, in the guise he assumed for the interview.  It may be that he will tire of the ruse, even before they declare that he isn’t a “fit”, after all.  For sure, getting a job under false pretenses is no guarantee of satisfaction in the position, nor of longevity in the position.  In the end, we are all found out.

As you read this, you might think this depiction of the job candidate is only true for the young, the beginning attorney.  In my experience, though, many people view a job interview as described above, even though they have practiced for a long while.

In a legal marketplace that doesn’t discourage lawyers to move from firm to firm, many experienced lawyers do so.  Many laterals don’t have much experience being interviewed, nor have they challenged the convention that the task at hand is simply to get the job, regardless of whether it will suit them.  Laterals often focus on their “book” of business and how much of that they can bring to the prospective law firm.  For sure, financials are an important element of the discussion.  But money is not everything.  It certainly isn’t a guarantee of job satisfaction nor longevity with the law firm.

So, what is an alternative to being a chameleon?  As Oscar Wilde advised – be yourself.  I’d add that it’s best to know what you want and to ask for it.

Be yourself.  You have your own style, your own way of speaking, your own style of dress.  In an interview, be at ease as best you can.  For sure, be honest.  If the truth doesn’t suit them, it’s not a fit.  In sum, come as you are.

Know what you want and say so.  Some firms place a high priority on each lawyer being an entrepreneur, operating independently of others.  Other firms champion teamwork and collaboration.  Do you want to go to market with others, or do you prefer to market alone?  Do you prefer keeping your clients to yourself?  Or do you prize teamwork, wanting to share client opportunities with others?  For you, is money the chief motivation, or are other opportunities important to you?  For example, do you want the opportunity to do pro-bono work or community service?  What size firm do you prefer and how much management and overhead do you want to shoulder?   It’s common to complain about where we find ourselves.  That’s ironic if we didn’t know what we wanted in the first place and never asked for it.

From where I stand, we are the sum of what we practice.  If we practice being a chameleon we will be more of a chameleon.  We’re apt to be known as such.  On the other hand, if we are true to ourselves and to others, we’ll be known as authentic.  We will earn the respect of others.  We’re apt to be a leader.

In his poem, “The Contract”, William Ayot speaks of leadership and why people choose to follow a leader:

“And in the end we follow them –


We give them our trust.  We give them our effort.

What we ask in return is that they stay true.”

Practice being true.  The rewards are many.