The number of practising solicitors in England and Wales has risen sharply to more than 120,000, with their ranks growing at an accelerated rate despite the economic pressures faced by the profession, the latest figures have shown.

One leading industry commentator claimed that the rise ‘defies gravity’.

Figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority revealed that there were 120,847 solicitors with practising certificates on 31 December, up 7% on the end of 2009. This represents a faster rate of expansion than in previous years, with the profession having grown by only 2% in 2009 and 2008, and 3% in 2007.

An SRA spokesman described last year’s 7% rise as ‘surprising’. The regulator does not collate the information required to enable the figures to be broken down into practice areas or type of firm.

Legal services expert professor Stephen Mayson, who has argued that non-reserved activities will increasingly be performed by non-qualified individuals to reduce the cost of providing legal services, described the growth as ‘counter-intuitive’. He said: ‘The number of solicitors keeps going up and up, and defies gravity. There are already too many qualified solicitors in the market, and the more that come in, the more competitive this market is going to get [driving down salaries].

‘Somewhere along the line something has to give, and that either means qualified solicitors leaving the market and doing something else, or being swallowed up by new competitors in consolidation, [with] lower earnings.

‘It does not mean solicitors will have to exit the market, but there will be consequences somewhere.’

Mayson added that it was difficult to see ‘where the expanding numbers are coming from’.

He said: ‘Residential conveyancing, personal injury, high street and legal aid are not areas that are associated with growth in this cycle of the economy. The bigger commercial firms are not hiring in the way that they used to.

‘The [numbers] are at odds with everything that we know is going on in the market.’