Obituary: Iris Freeman

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The Independent Online
Many thought management and unions behaved like squabbling children during Fleet Street's industrial relations wars of the 1970s. Only Iris Freeman carried the insight into the practice of employment law.

When one particularly difficult confrontation between the formidable Jocelyn Stevens, then managing director of the Daily Express, and the equally determined union representatives looked like ending in a strike, she told them she was going to leave them until they stopped acting like naughty infants. And she walked out, locking the door behind her. Three hours later, she unlocked the door and they emerged with a deal and an enduring affection for a lawyer who treated them as she treated everyone - with the respect they deserved and an unwavering belief that everything was possible.

It was a belief that she carried with her through her own three outstandingly successful careers - as wife and mother, as a lawyer and as an author.

She had been brought up to believe that a woman's first duty was to raise a family and, among all her more worldly successes, she was always proudest of her role as a wife and mother. Her marriage to David Freeman, the founder of the City law firm D.J. Freeman, was marvellously happy. They had fallen in love at first sight and stayed that way until the day she died. They married in 1950, three years after she graduated from University College London in Psychology with Sociology and Philosophy. While he was building his practice, she raised three children, all of whom went on to successful careers in business and the media.

But her devotion to her family never led her to believe that was all there was to her life. At the age of 40 she qualified as a lawyer and joined D.J. Freeman to create its specialist employment group. She and David Freeman had spotted the opening created by the new employment legislation of the 1970s and over the following years Iris Freeman built one of Britain's leading employment practices which has handled many high-profile cases. When George Davies was sacked from Next, he turned to D.J. Freeman, as did Peter Robinson of Woolwich Building Society and many other senior executives. Many leading QCs today like Lord Irvine of Lairg received some of their first briefs from Iris Freeman.

She was a pioneer not only in employment law but also for the position of women in City law firms. One of her numerous legacies is the fact that today D.J. Freeman has a higher proportion of women partners than any other City law firm. Unlike many of his generation, David Freeman never felt threatened by clever women and his pride in his wife's achievements gave him the confidence to make the firm more open and meritocratic than many of its older and stuffier competitors. Her enthusiasm for every case, her commitment to her clients and her encouragement of young lawyers helped create a family atmosphere, which still characterises the firm and is rarely found in large City practices.

Iris Freeman had an irrepressible optimism about life. For her, no door was ever closed - solutions could always be found to the bloodiest labour disputes, the most recalcitrant child could always be helped to pass an exam. And, when she felt that it was time to retire from practising law, she resolved to realise her childhood dream of becoming an author. At the age of 63, she decided that no one had properly told the extraordinary story of Lord Denning and that she now would. And within three years she produced a critically acclaimed biography, Lord Denning: a life (1993), that, for the first time, properly chronicled the life and times of one of Britain's most remarkable lawyers.

Like so many before him, Denning fell under her spell and author and subject developed a strong friendship. Halfway through the book, this caused her a period of deep anguish. She profoundly disagreed with his belief that successive waves of immigration had undermined the England he loved. For someone so proud of her Jewish heritage, this was intensely troubling. Yet she had also become fond of Denning and did not want to do anything to hurt him. In the end, she found a way of assessing his views which was accurate and helped too the reader to understand their origins. It is a tribute to her fairness that in doing so she retained both her fidelity to the historical record and Denning's friendship. At the time of her death she was working on a new biography of Lord Goodman.

Her final illness came on suddenly and was borne with characteristic fortitude. Her life remains a testament to her beliefs - in the importance of family and that, if you treat others fairly and with respect, anything is possible.

Iris Margaret Alberge, writer and lawyer: born London 7 July 1927; partner, D.J. Freeman 1970-86, consultant 1986-94; married 1950 David Freeman (two sons, one daughter); died London 17 February 1997.