Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft partner Melissa Hinkle’s status as a member of the firm’s management committee.

The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that you have one.

That’s the mentality that guided Brown Rudnick chairman and chief executive officer Joseph Ryan after he realized three years ago that his firm had an abysmally small number of female equity partners. So Ryan brought in outside consultants to help perform a comprehensive evaluation of the firm’s operations, then used the results of that effort to craft a plan aimed at addressing the gender imbalance.

Despite that push, the ratio of Brown Rudnick equity partners who are women stands at 6.8 percent — one of the lowest figures among the country’s large law firms, according to data compiled by The National Law Journal.

“Unfortunately, the frustrating part is that it takes time,” Ryan said. “While the numbers are very disappointing as they currently exist, hopefully we can change that.”

Almost all of the 10 firms at the bottom of the NLJ’s list — all of which have a ratio of women equity partners below 8 percent — are headquartered on the East Coast. Five are based in New York: Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle (which does not have a single woman equity partner); Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft (6.5 percent); Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman (7.4 percent); Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy (7.6 percent); and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (7.7 percent).

The other four are Brown Rudnick (Boston); Choate, Hall & Stewart (Boston, 7.7 percent); Dickstein Shapiro (Washington, 7.3 percent); and Stevens & Lee (Reading, Pa., 7.1 percent). Rounding out the list is Kansas City, Mo.-based Lathrop & Gage (7.0 percent).

Of the 10, only Wachtell qualifies under NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer‘s definition as a single-tier partnership, meaning that more than 50 percent of compensation each partner earns is variable and dependent on profit sharing.

Firm leaders at Curtis, Lathrop, Milbank, Stevens and Wachtell did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Leaders of other firms in the bottom 10, including Kasowitz and Dickstein, said they would have fared better in the rankings if not for the survey’s definition of equity partner.

In a statement, Cadwalader partner and management committee member Melissa Hinkle said her firm is committed to bolstering its recruiting, retention and promotion initiatives geared toward women, “not just for the sake of the numbers but because of the importance we place on having women attorneys engaged in our business and decision making.”

Choate’s co-managing partners John Nadas and William Gelnaw said in a statement that the firm is committed to increasing the number through internal promotions and lateral hires, noting that women equity partners already hold significant leadership roles at Choate.

Several people say the underrepresentation of women in law firms’ equity partnership ranks often comes down to one key factor: “At the simplest level, they don’t have books of business,” said San Francisco-based legal consultant Sara Holtz, who specializes in helping female lawyers generate business. Dickstein Shapiro chairman Michael Nannes agreed: “If you asked me to identify one factor that will most assuredly advance a woman higher, it’s the production of business.”

As to why women lack books of business, Holtz offered two explanations. First, she said, women are less likely to inherit business than men and more likely to face client bias. Second, she added, women are sometimes more reluctant to ask for business and promote themselves.

“Across the board in the legal profession, I’ve found male partners get more support in building their practices, in being given favorable opportunities for introductions, as well as in being assigned on top matters,” said Rebecca Rosenberger Smolen, who left Stevens & Lee earlier this year to form a trust and estate boutique called Bala Law Group.

“We’re in a culture where men are still asking women to marry them and go on dates in greater frequency [than women asking men]. Business-getting comes down to that — it comes down to being the asker and pursuing opportunities.”

Smolen said that, although Stevens & Lee is no worse than other large firms, she does think the firm fails at giving equal support to women. Pressure to keep up the firm’s relatively high profits per partner — $1.02 million in 2011 — also makes it harder for women to crack the top ranks there, she said.

Most people in the industry agree that, although the inequity is persistent, it can improve if women continue to push for equal opportunities and firms become cognizant of ways to change the system. “Can women who aspire to become equity partners do something so that they do?” Holt asked. “Absolutely.”

Sara Randazzo is a reporter for The American Lawyer.

CHARTS

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