What makes a good lawyer? Intellect, excellent communication, team-working and analytical skills... but not always a law degree.

What makes a good lawyer? Intellect, excellent communication, team-working and analytical skills... but not always a law degree. Increasingly non-law graduates have a lot to offer the legal profession. Languages are useful to international firms, expertise in IT is helpful for computer law, and intellectual property rights and a medical background is at a premium in clinical negligence.

Every year hundreds of non-law graduates take a law conversion course, known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or Common Professional Examination (CPE). Addleshaw Goddard, a leading commercial law firm, has this year awarded more than half of their two-year training contracts to non-law students and graduates. Niki Lawson, graduate recruitment manager, says: "We benefit from having people who can bring different skills. First-class communication and commercial acumen are particularly important. At interview, law students can get too tied up with the legal theory while what we're looking for are commonsense, logical answers that display commercial awareness."

Kathryn Bailey, a geography graduate from the University of Manchester, has just begun her training contract with Addleshaw Goddard having successfully completed the GDL/CPE and Legal Practice Course (LPC). She says: "At university, I didn't appreciate just how many lawyers have non-law degrees. I chose geography because it was something I really wanted to study. I like the different perspective my degree has given me."

The bigger law firms recruit two years in advance and sponsor successful non-law applicants through the GDL/CPE and LPC courses. With course fees costing up to £8,000 plus, this is a huge bonus, but there is stiff competition for vacancies and many firms expect top grades at GCSE and A-level and a minimum 2.1 degree.

Smaller firms - both commercial and those specialising in probate, family, conveyancing and criminal law, for example - can rarely afford to sponsor an individual's training and tend to recruit people who have funded their way by other means.

For an area like criminal law, a first-class academic record may be less important than being suited to the job. Franklin Sinclair, Senior Partner with Tuckers 24-hour criminal lawyers in Manchester, says: "It's all about having the right personality; you need to be strong - mentally and physically - and able to communicate well with clients." Sinclair looks for people who have a passion for the job, "someone who really wants to help people less fortunate than themselves".

If you have ambitions to be a barrister, you first need to do the GDL/CPE then the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) followed by pupillage. You then either continue in chambers as a tenant or practise at the employed Bar. John Cooper, a leading criminal barrister of Chambers 25 Bedford Row, says this is "a highly competitive path and one that requires people not to enter with a faint heart. They need determination and tenacity to achieve their objectives". He adds, however, that the Bar "is a broad church and welcomes people with a wide range of expertise and disciplines".

The Government Legal Service (GLS) offers a career both for solicitors and for barristers. James Murphy, a GLS recruiter, says: "Our lawyers are motivated by doing something for the public good. We offer a broad range of work experience in a variety of government departments. We encourage a healthy work/life balance with the offer of challenging and rewarding work." This year the GLS received just under 1,200 applications for 27 training places; almost half of which went to non-law students and graduates. Successful candidates are sponsored through the LPC/BVC and occasionally the GDL/CPE.

Law is a highly competitive profession. If you think it's for you, do your research. Useful starting points are the Law Society and Bar Council websites. Look for work experience - its value can't be stressed enough. There are formal vacation placements/mini-pupillages that you can apply for, but why not also approach law firms and ask if you can observe what they do? This is sometimes referred to as "work shadowing". Visit the courts, attend talks on the legal profession and ask a careers adviser to help you devise an action plan for your route in.

You may discover law's not for you - and that's useful in itself. But if you do decide to pursue a career in law, the rewards can be high - and not just financially. As one barrister comments: "I love my job and everyday I feel privileged to do something that makes a real difference to people's lives."

Louise Sethi is a careers consultant at the University of Manchester