Law is a highly information intensive profession.1 To provide proficient legal services to their clients, lawyers must command the applicable law and judicial resolutions governing the issue in question, on a continuous basis. However, the basic step of finding a leading case involving an issue is in many cases actually difficult to attain.2 This is the case for Israeli family-law attorneys, who practice law in a challenging information environment which lacks published Family and Religious Courts rulings as they are being conducted behind closed-doors, thus maintaining a body of ‘secret law’.3
In light of a profound notion that information researchers can and should generate theoretical and applied knowledge in this matter, I explored various aspects of serendipity—i.e. fortunate discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things a person is not in quest of,4 in the legal (i.e. professional) information seeking behavior of Israeli family-law attorneys. My master’s thesis research (conducted under the supervision of Dr. Jenny Bronstein, Bar-Ilan University) has provided a detailed examination of these attorneys’ memorable experiences of accidental, unexpected encounters with useful Family and Religious Courts rulings.5
Quantitative data from 135 Israeli family-law attorneys were collected using an online questionnaire, and used for analysis. Some of the findings that I find most interesting are that Israeli family-law attorneys reported regularly encountering with Family and Religious Courts rulings on their professional practice, and also relying on such accidental, unexpected encounters as a way of obtaining professional information; thus I identified them as ‘super-encounterers’, in-line with Erdelez’s6 theoretical framework.
Furthermore, the study also succeeded in identifying seven distinctive professional contributions—that represent the value of these information encounters in the ongoing legal practice—spanning, inter alia, from establishment or expansion of a private collection of court rulings; through manifestation of an additional, or different, thinking course or reasoning; to support for an argument claimed, or considered to be claimed, on behalf a client or contradiction of an argument claimed by the adverse party.5 To wit, information encountering with out-of-sight court rulings were found to build up family-law attorneys’ competence to keep up with current understanding and interpretation of the law, and better serve their clients.5 I concluded my research by providing several practical measures that may possibly increase chances for serendipity to occur in attorney’s legal information seeking behavior5:126-127; among others, the findings can guide lawyers in legal information sources selection and use, assist them in detecting mishandled information sources, and provide insights for refining academic and continuing legal research and information seeking training.
Forward-looking, this study of nonlinear information seeking behavior, as well as other humanities-initiated empirical research of-, and within-, the legal domain, may be competent assistive instruments for fostering true changes to legal practices, with an ensuing potential impact on justice dissemination in the society.
Yosef Solomon is a licensed lawyer (Israel), and a doctoral researcher in the Department of Information Science, Bar-Ilan University. His primary research interests include human information behavior, information studies in the arts, information in the legal profession, and serendipity. Yosef participated in the iSchools iConference 2017 Doctoral Colloquium, and will present a poster in the upcoming iConference 2018 in Sheffield, UK.