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Appreciative Inquiry: It’s Not Easy, But It Is Simple
by Kathy Clark
September 2004

We all know attorneys who do outstanding trial work but can’t keep associates.
Some attorneys weave a tight and eloquent argument but can’t settle a case. There are also attorneys who are only interested in winning no matter what the cost to those involved. Many of them would greatly benefit from understanding and using a process called Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry is the brainchild of Dr. David Cooperrider, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management and cofounder of Appreciative Inquiry Consulting.

Appreciative Inquiry focuses on possibilities, not problems. That sounds easy but it requires an important shift from our usual, problem-centered approach to bringing about change. Appreciative Inquiry helps us discover what works, so that we can do more of it. It is inquiry based on positive questions. In Appreciative Inquiry, a clear, concise topic is chosen, positive questions are developed, and the consultant (or whoever is asking the questions) sits down with the client and asks the questions. Stories start to develop; patterns begin to emerge. Individuals recall and tap into positive achievements and stories that strengthen and inspire. The process, which is more fully described below, doesn’t ignore problems—it just approaches them from the other side. The other side being what IS working rather than what is NOT working. It can be used informally, such as in a conversation or in a formal context, such as at a strategic planning conference or retreat. It can be used with two people or two thousand.

AI builds on several assumptions, including:

1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
3. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
4. What we want already exists in ourselves, our firms, our organizations, and
our communities.

The first step in the process is choosing a topic. This is crucial because AI builds out from the topic choice. Change starts to happen with the first questions we ask. Because change begins to take place at the same time as inquiry, we want our inquiry to focus on what is working so that we can build on that. The topic should be one in which the team, group, or person is really interested and wants to learn more. The topic should be stated with positive wording i.e. “What is the most satisfying…etc.” It should (and will) generate possibilities.

Start with the topic that is most relevant or urgent to the organization - growth, client services, marketing, diversity, etc. If this seems too daunting, start with a small topic or a small group, even one person. Inquire about what has worked best for that person in her/his career, what work s/he is most proud of, or something similar. Once we learn how to do this, we can share the concepts of AI and our success stories with our firms, clients and communities.

Let’s look at some examples—questions aimed at bringing change around specific issues:

Attorney/Employee Satisfaction:

What drew you to this firm?
What situations or circumstances created your loyalty to this firm?
Describe a situation in which you felt that you received exceptional mentoring.
How are you best mentored.
Describe a situation in which you feel that you were best supported by the firm.
Describe your most meaningful experience of pro bono work.
Describe the best in your firm’s (team, organization) culture.
How has your firm created a culture of mutual trust, loyalty, and respect?
What is the most meaningful feedback you’ve received as an attorney?
What do you most value about yourself? Your work? Your firm? Your profession?
Describe a situation in which you felt recognized and acknowledged for your work by your firm.
Describe a situation in which you felt valued and respected by a client.
Describe a situation in which your commitment to family was supported by your organization.
Describe a situation in which your commitment to community was supported by your organization.
How do you stay energized and inspired?
Describe a shift in your thinking that gives you hope for yourself, firm, or community.

Satisfaction in the Legal Arena:

What contribution have you made to the legal profession?
What contribution have you made to your organization or community?
Describe a situation in which you were able to work collaboratively or cooperatively with opposing counsel.
Describe a situation in which you used new ideas to come to a resolution of an issue or case.
Describe your part in a successful conclusion to a client case/matter that you were handling. Describe an organization that you’ve worked in that fosters continuous learning. How has the organization done that?

Organizational Culture:

Describe one or two situations in which you’ve observed the values of your organization in action.
Describe one or two situations in which you felt most valued by this organization.

Diversity/Sexual Harassment Training:

Describe a situation in which you worked with a diverse team different from you.
What did you learn from working with this group?
Describe the best on-the-job experience you’ve had working on a project with someone of the opposite sex.
How did the relationship get started?
How did you build trust with this person?
How did you deal with conflict?
How did you develop mutual respect?
Describe something meaningful that you learned from working on a diverse team.

Marketing Yourself/Your Firm/Organization (or, Tooting Your Own Horn, With Humility)

As above, for instance:
Describe a situation in which you used new ideas to come to a resolution of an issue or case.
Describe your part in a successful conclusion to a client matter you were handling. Describe an organization that you’ve worked in that fosters continuous learning. How has the organization done that?
How do you stay energized and inspired?

Whichever topic you choose, whatever groups or individuals you talk with, look for patterns in their responses. Pay attention to the attitudes of the responders, both at the time they respond and at later times. Take a step back; take some time to absorb the responses. Notice the changes that start to take place, the shift in thinking based on the inquiry and the responses, the conversation. The changes are likely to be subtle at first, so keep paying attention. This will allow you not only to see and experience the changes, but to more easily move into the next steps in the process.

If you want to create change, Appreciative Inquiry is a great way to begin the process. It is an affirmative approach to human and organizational development. Appreciative Inquiry springs from possibilities and from hope. Again, it works with two people or with two thousand. If structured correctly, all involved have the opportunity to co-create change and transform their organization. Everyone gets to be heard! It brings out the best in us.

Skeptical? Suspend judgment; experiment with Appreciative Inquiry yourself at home with your family (children!), with your clients, in your community, or in your workplace. Keep in mind the words of Gandhi, an attorney himself: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Remember-- even the most innocent affirmative question evokes change. Often, the change is not what we expected, but welcome, just the same. For instance, asking the marketing questions above may not bring forth a new marketing plan but, instead, may bring a rededication to the core values of the organization or individual.

The use of affirmative language changes the way we think; changing the way we think will change the way we work. The shift in thinking begins with you, the questioner. You need to move beyond the ineffective problem-solving approach; you need to focus on what works, so you can do more of it. The problems won’t disappear (wouldn’t that be nice!) but they will be smaller as what works gets larger and greater in stature.

Kathleen Clark is an attorney, mediator and consultant in private practice in the Bay Area. She is a member of the Board of Governors of California Women Lawyers, the ABA, and the Contra Costa Bar Association. She has a Masters Degree in Business Management from John F. Kennedy University.

For more information about this approach, including sharing responses with your organizations, incorporating the stories into the culture of the organization, and sustaining the resulting changes, call Ms. Clark at 925-280-7222 or email her at



Cooperrider, David L., Sorensen, Peter F., Jr., Whitney, Diana, Yaeger, Therese F., (2000) editors, Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization Toward a Positive Theory of Change, Stipes Publishing, LLC.
Cooperrider, David L., Whitney, Diana, (1999) Appreciative Inquiry, Berrett-Koehler Communications, Inc.

Hammond, Sue Annis, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, 2nd Edition, Thin Book Publishing Company.

Whitney, Diana, Cooperrider, David, Trosten-Bloom, Amanda, Kaplin, Brian S., (2002) Encyclopedia of Positive Questions: Using Appreciative Inquiry To Bring Out The Best In Your Organization, Vol One, Lake Shore Communications.