If he had not flunked his A-levels, life would have been very different for Mark Philips. As a teenager, he longed to act and, having won a place at the National Youth Theatre and a part as a borstal boy in the film Scum, Philips seemed set for a successful acting career. But when his exam results arrived, the grades were not high enough for the Warwick University drama course.
'I found a place through clearing on the law course at Bristol, where they had a really good drama department,' he recalls. Philips started acting as soon as he arrived there, but found he was enjoying his course so much that he decided his real vocation was the law.
At 40, Philips is now a successful barrister specialising in insolvency. He became a Queen's Counsel last autumn: the first of his year to do so. The walls of his office in London's Gray's Inn are lined with leather-bound books and smiling snapshots of his wife Debbie, whom he met at university, and their children: nine-year-old Katy, six-year-old Sarah, and Jack, three.
If a big case blows up, Philips has to drop everything and work round the clock. 'When BCCI went under, the phone call came at 5pm and we'd closed it down by noon the following day,' he recalls.
'It was exactly the same with (Robert) Maxwell and Barings. That can happen at any time. My nine-year-old was in tears this morning - there's a four-week trial coming up and I may not be able to go on a family holiday to this fantastic hotel in Corsica we all love.'
Crises apart, Philips has a demanding but manageable work schedule - typically arriving at his barristers chambers at 8am and leaving by 6.30pm with a few hours' work to do after dinner. 'I work hard, and I work every day, including weekends,' he says. 'But it is workable and, somehow or other, the kids do get to see enough of me.'
As Philips is the first to admit, he could not pull off his balancing act without Debbie, who gave up her career as a City solicitor when Katy was born. 'It was absolutely agonising for her,' he recounts. 'Without any doubt, Debbie could have had a stellar legal career. But I'm certain now that she made the right decision. You've only got to look at our kids to see that.'
Did he consider giving up his career instead? 'Not for a second. I've always been a compulsive achiever.'
Debbie's decision liberated Philips from the pressures that dog most working parents. 'I do realise how lucky I am,' he stresses. 'Debs is brilliant - incredibly capable at everything. She even takes care of our financial affairs.'
Free to concentrate on his career, Philips worked on the high-profile insolvencies of the early 1990s, many of which, like BCCI, are still rumbling on. 'It was a very exciting time,' he recalls. 'But it required a lot of stamina, because we were often working 20 hours a day, sometimes longer.'
Now he is climbing the judiciary ladder. Two years ago, Philips became an assistant recorder, a junior judge who takes crown court cases, initially in Leeds and now in Sheffield. This involves four weeks a year - generally one fortnight and two week-long stints - in Yorkshire. 'I work like stink when I'm there,' says Philips. 'The day starts at 8am and, after court, it's back to the hotel to work until midnight.'
Why does he do it? 'Certainly not for the money. This may sound corny, but there is a sense of putting something back and, yes, it is a good career move. I don't know whether I'll want to be a judge when I'm 50, but I might. This is a good first step towards that. And it certainly didn't hurt when it came to taking silk.'
His practice takes priority for the rest of the year. Most days, Philips is home by 7.30pm to see his children before bedtime, and he rarely goes out on week nights. 'It's hopeless. I either have to cancel because of a case, or I'm so tired that I fall asleep.'
He and Debbie often go to the theatre on Friday nights and organise at least one family outing each weekend. Philips takes time off for the birthday parties, school plays and sports days. 'I always try to be there, although I did miss Jack's play at Christmas because I was in the Caymans and couldn't get home. That hurt.'
He tries to take three holidays each year, including a three-week break in August, although it was interrupted last summer when Philips was summoned to the Caymans. After the case, he flew straight back to Italy, where Debbie picked him up in Bologna at 1pm to catch a train back to London at 3pm. 'We'd booked two couchettes in different parts of the train. There was just no way I could leave Debs to cope with an overnight journey on her own with three young children.'
Over the years, Philips has given up some interests, such as reading. 'I don't have time. I even found myself reading a criminal law textbook on holiday.' But he has held on to others, such as football. 'Don't ask which team I support. I've acted for Tottenham, Arsenal and Sunderland. I always say I support my client.' Having gone to Euro '96 and France '98, Philips hopes go to Euro 2000 this summer.
Another passion is motorsports. Five years ago, Philips treated himself to a Ferrari - I'd wanted one ever since I'd seen Tony Curtis in The Persuaders - and took it out on the track during open days at Goodwood. Then, after crashing and causing pounds 35,000-worth of damage, he decided to buy a Lotus racing car and to apply for a racing licence. He then raced in 1997 and 1998. 'I'll never ever forget the thrill of my first race,' says Philips. 'When you set off, there are all these cars around you, just like on TV. The adrenaline rush is incredible.'
However, Philips did not race at all last summer and the Lotus is now up for sale. 'What I'd really like to have done is upgrade it,' he admits. 'I am well aware that it's indefensible for a father of three to spend so much money on cars, and that it's not the safest of hobbies. It's the one thing Debbie puts her foot down about. But I don't buy expensive art, we live in a very ordinary house and I do love racing.'
Alice Rawsthorn is the FT's architecture and design critic.