The Best Briefcase for Women

Tumi Villa Nivelle Business CaseA few weeks ago, an interesting subject popped up in comments — the briefcase. One commenter advised the readers that in her big city, “not a single woman lawyer I know under the age of 50 carries a purse.”  This led to a small debate between briefcase-carrying women and non-briefcase carrying women.

To my eyes, though, here in NYC it’s rare to see a briefcase. Most women I know carry a large purse (a hobo or some other shoulder bag), and then supplement that with a tote bag when it’s really necessary (sometimes filled with a laptop in a sleeve — never a computer bag).  Those frequently carrying files may switch to a tote/purse combo — but even then it seems like something I saw a lot more of a few years ago, before flash drives, remote log-ins, and other convenient telecommuting tools were invented.  I’ve even written about what your tote bag says about you.

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Still, this is a perennial subject, so let’s talk about it. Do YOU use a briefcase? (And if so, please list your city!) What brands do you like best? For my own $.02, I’ve always been partial to the look of Tumi’s Villa line (pictured above: Tumi Villa Nivelle Business Case; see similar Tumi styles on Amazon and at Zappos ) or Dooney & Bourke’s Alto Bradley briefcase.

Here’s another question — have you ever had a briefcase made? One of my family members swears that she and all the other working women she knew had that done in the early ’80s…

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  1. I have a big red leather Levenger tote that my fiance gave me as a gift a number of years ago. It’s big enough to serve as a carry on or a briefcase when I need to travel for work and take my laptop but small enough to function as a purse during my work week. On the weekends, I switch to a smaller bag.

  2. anonforthisone :

    I use an open-top tote purse (not too large, good size for my liter sigg and big wallet, and makeup and phone), and then a big tote bag (michael michael kors, about 12 x 17) for the files that I lug back and forth to work. I do want a new purse, but I need a tote style since sometimes my water bottle leaks if it is on its side.

    Haven’t seen any women around here with briefcases – I am in Boston.

    • I’m also in Boston and don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman with a briefcase.

      • ditto – no briefcases here. I carry an open-top tote with two divided sections – one for wallet, umbrella, toiletries, shoes; the other for files, notebook, whatever work I am bringing home. My major requirements in shopping for a new tote earlier this year were 1) professional look and 2) had to be big enough to put about 2″ worth of 8×11 paper/folders, which is often what I bring home at night. If I have more than that (carrying presentations to a meeting with clients for instance) I bring a separate bag.

      • See — I read this, and I think “we must have a different definition of briefcase.” Because I go to Boston all the time for work and see women carrying what I’d call briefcases. Maybe you’d call them totes? Maybe the choice of word itself is generational. I’m closer to 40 than 20.

      • Really? I’m in New York and every attorney I know carries a briefcase. Totes are great for off days, when you don’t have meetings, but they smack too much of shopping bags for top-level appointments. I’ve had a black Coach briefcase for a dozen years and it is still in perfect shape.

        • My daughter will graduate from law school in May! I’d like to get her a professional brief case or bag. It has to be special. She’s stylish & professional & I don’t know a thing about designers & what’s in!

          Thank you for any guiding advice.
          Proud Mom Mary

          • Anonymous :

            Did you find anything you like? My daughter is getting her Master’s in Journalism and I would like to get her a nice, professional looking leather tote bag.

          • What brand did you end up getting? I am graduating law school in two weeks and someone wants to get me one as a gift. I was looking at Coach but they are all men’s briefcases

  3. “Never” a computer bag? Eh?

    I’ve seen scads of computer bags both in NYC and elsewhere.

    Myself, I don’t carry a briefcase OR a purse; I carry a computer tote bag. In it goes my computer (obviously) as well as my wristlet and any other odds and ends that I need while commuting or traveling.

    • I have stopped reading the words “never” and “always” — here and elsewhere — as the absolutes they should be, given their meaning. I just take it to mean either “rarele/often” or “i don’t/do like this.”

    • Computer bag as in black rectangular bag with nylon straps? I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those carried by a woman in NYC.

  4. This has been on my mind as I recently started commuting for both work and school (MBA) purposes. I previously used a large Kate Spade tote, which had enough room for all I needed for the workday, but now that I must bring my textbooks and school necessities, I am in need of more bag space. My school gave us all messenger/computer bags with the school logo on them, which I like the idea of using since it is a rather prestigious school and could be beneficial for networking purposes. Nevertheless, it is not at all stylish. (Not an issue for most since the school is about 80-85% male.) Does the networking potential outweigh the lack of style?

    • lawyerette :

      Frankly I’d use a laptop or a wheelie bag if you’re carrying textbooks back and forth. This coming from someone who carried too heavy bags for years and now have a recurring shoulder injury as a result. Not worth it IMO. The logo thing is also probably not worth it, but you never know.

    • Another Sarah :

      I second the wheelie or laptop bag if you have textbooks. Take it from someone who carried her law school texts (approx. 2500pgs each, hardcover) in around in a messenger/computer bag. Ever since I graduated I’ve been trying to build up my back muscles to stand up straight again.

    • Ugggh, prestige whoring is barftastic comment.

      • LOL

        • LMAO. All of my branded/logo — from legal conferences, “prestigious law school,” and corporate swag — are used for my kids PE clothes, random jaunts to the beach, swim lessons for my kids, impromptu picnics, snack hording to the movie theater, etc. Didn’t know they were “networking tools.” LOL.

    • Anonymous :

      Using a school-logo bag is a pretty tool-ish thing to do, and doubly so if the bag is ugly. I’d suggest getting a nice leather tote to use for interviews and professional events, and a rolly bag or sturdy backpack so that you don’t injure yourself while hauling your textbooks around.

    • I’ve never looked at someone with their school-logoed bag and thought “hey, I want to network with that person.” It just comes off as pretentious. Also, the bags the schools give out are usually on the flimsy side and offer poor support.

      • I’ll disagree on the networking issue. Bear in mind, I’m in the South, and I would say that we probably have a bit of a different culture when it comes to striking up conversations with strangers. But, if I were carrying a bag (or something) that indicated where I went to school, I would have no end of people stopping to chat about whether I went to the school, how they went to the same school, how their [insert relative] went to/is thinking of going to that same school, etc.

        So, if you look at networking as making as many connections as possible, it could certainly be good for that. (Note that this has nothing to do with the prestige of the school, more with the public’s familiarity with it.)

        • I agree. This is some of what I was trying to get across…and it is not only limited to the South! (although I am originally from the South…I don’t think the random people I meet can tell though).

    • I am in school and I use a backpack, which is great. If you have large books (and biz school might not), I can’t imagine doing it another way. If you are in a big city, everyone hates you if you have a rolling bag. Especially if you use public transportation.

      Originally, my undergrad school gave me a backpack from my department, which I was trying to use only temporarily, as it was not at all stylish, but it was incredibly durable and I couldn’t find a replacement for a while. My undergrad school is quite prestigious, so I felt like a tool, but it wasn’t actually that bad. Probably what will happen if you carry the bag with your school name is that alumni of that school will notice, not really people from other schools, and occasionally other people who are MBAs (this is what happened with me — people from my undergrad/other people with my undergrad degree). It was actually quite a nice experience.

  5. I have been considering getting a briefcase for a while, since it’s becoming more necessary to carry a laptop and folders. I love the ones that Levenger offers, but they are pricey. I have a mini messenger bag from Levenger (sadly too small for a laptop) that has been fantastic–holds up great and isn’t too heavy. They now sell it in laptop size, the Bomber Jacket messenger bag. It’s a little masculine, but highly recommended.

  6. I use a large Tory Burch totebag. I have a black messenger bag-type briefcase from Coach. I use it only when I am going to court. I’m in NYC.

  7. In Chicago, a lawyer — I carry what I call a briefcase. I am wondering, though, if some of this isn’t just semantic. I’m not sure that others wouldn’t call it a tote. Black leather, soft-sided, rectangular with big loopy handles, open at the top (it CAN be zippered shut, but rarely is). It fits computer, power cord, wallet and stuff, and a couple of papers. I could not imagine my regular bag being something that couldn’t fit my laptop, because, well, that’s just how my job is. Among the other women at my firm, I am far more likely to see a canvas computer bag than I am to see a proper “purse.”

    • That sounds exactly like what I carry, and I definitely call it a tote. In my head, a briefcase at least has to have a flap at the top, usually with two buckles/snaps on it. I wonder whether the semantic difference is regional or generational or just due to manufacturers who can’t figure out what to label their products.

      • So the item pictured at the top of this post, which Kat labels a “briefcase” is not, to you, a briefcase because no flap? Mystery solved. I think most of us, then, pretty much carry the same type of bag.

  8. For question 2, I brought this up in the designer bag discussion a few weeks ago. I plan on having a couple of bags designed and made in India during my vacation. I’m bringing pictures and have an idea of the colors I’d like that complement my wardrobe. The bags will need to carry my laptop and wallet so I guess I’d fit in the purse/ combo category. In addition to my work bag, I also bring my gym bag and lunch tote so if I had to carry a purse I would probably collapse!

  9. I have a black Coach messenger briefcase that I have had for nearly 11 years. I’ve had Coach repair the handle and the stiching once, which they will do for $20. I used to carry this all the time, now I only take it to court or depositions when I am only carrying a few things.

    I’m on the market for a nicer totebag that I can carry to and from the office that will fit either a few files and/or my Ipad. My laptop bag is a joke and adds bulk with no real storage space and I’m so over carrying that thing around.

    I’ve been known to use totebags from bar association meetings and I also have a wheeled case that I use when I’m taking larger files with me. When I’m hauling a lot of stuff around, I’m all about function over style.

    • This is the bag I got and I love it:
      I had never heard of the brand, but it came recommended from a friend. I got the dark red, so it goes with everything. Its a nice, strong nylon rather than leather so it is amazingly resilient but still looks really classy. It is keeping up in great shape and I have been carrying to court, meetings, and on travel for a few years (and it lives in my office floor the rest of the time, which is not exactly taking careful care of it *sigh*)
      It has one padded pocket that can be used for a laptop (or not) the middle section has pockets galore on both sides, outside pockets on front and back (one zips open on the bottom so you can slip it over a roller bag handle for travel) and pockets on the side for sunnies and water bottle. The bag itself is actually less heavy than my smaller coach briefcase.

      Check it out- it may be a great option for you. Plus, I don’t see it EVERYWHERE, which for me is a plus (but i know is not a plus for everyong). Also, a federal court judge (female) complimented me on it at a luncheon– coakley FTW!

  10. Divaliscious11 :

    Chicago – I have 2 but never use them. When I need to carry something that doesn’t fit in my purse, I carry a tote. If I need something that can fit in purse, I’ll carry a larger bag on that day.

  11. Uhmmmmm…I use a backpack. And a nice Coach purse. I know. I know! But I have files, lunch, makeup, workout clothes, etc. all to carry with me on my commute on the Metro (in D.C.). I have a Coach briefcase but it doesn’t hold too much and is a little heavy. I use it for special meetings (and interviews). I don’t see a ton of briefcases, mostly totes.

    • I use a backpack, too– it gets awkward carrying more than one bag on the Metro, and I’m more apt to leave something on the train. I also developed scoliosis in middle school and am wary of carrying anything on one shoulder anymore.

  12. AtlantaAttorney :

    I am always on the lookout for a good tote bag. I very rarely carry my computer back and forth, but almost always have a legal pad, journals/magazines, calendar (yes, I’m old school and use a paper calendar), and a few files. I used a beautiful brown leather tote bag from Coach (classic, simple lines) for years, and finally retired it because it was looking so shabby. Now I’m having a hard time finding its replacement.

  13. I am a lawyer and i carry a backpack. Not particularly professional, but I lug around a lot of stuff everyday and any kind of bag made me leant one side and really tweak my back. wheelie bags aren’t feasible either because streets in my city are filthy and I do not want to track anything into my home or office.

  14. In Ohio, and I use a huge Hobo International tote that holds my normal purse stuff, laptop, and a couple inches of files, along with water bottle. It zips shut, but I don’t normally zip it. I have a briefcase, but it just doesn’t hold much more than a thin legal-sized file, so I find I don’t use it often. I’ve been through several iterations of totes before finally hitting on the Hobo International, which I love.

  15. I had Paulina Carcach (on etsy) make one of her bags in a bigger size, so it would function as a briefcase and hold big binders and folders, etc. I can fit my work computer in it, but worry that it strains the bag too much (the computer is a honker). So sometimes I use the boring computer bag when I need to take it somewhere.

    I would love to find a true briefcase, but precisely because they are sort of unusual, retro and masculine. I remember my mom’s big briefcase she used to take to court. Maroon leather, hard sided, almost the size of a lit bag. Had her initials on it. Yes, the sign of success in the 80s!

    • My mother has exactly that bag. It is still in beautiful condition. I wish I could find one now. It’s been nearly long enough that I feel it would look retro, not dated.

    • BEAUTIFUL, thanks for the great idea!

  16. A lawyer in upstate New York–I have a soft-sided briefcase that I use for large files, to carry a laptop, or for those meetings when only a briefcase will do. Otherwise, my day to day is a Nine West cloth sided tote. It has great pockets, can fit lots of things, and since it’s black, it wears really, really well. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments for it looking “professional” without looking too much like a briefcase.

  17. SoCal Litigator :

    I have been a litigator for more than 30 years and what I use to carry my work has changed over the years. When I was first practicing, there were few women lawyers and all you had to choose from was a masculine hard top attaché case (with a programmable lock). And I had several. I then changed to a soft sided attaché case with a strap. I added a rolling trial case (essential for trial) and replaced that once over the years. I still use that for trial.

    When I started to carry a laptop around, I bought a standard nylon laptop case. That has recently been upgraded to a Timbuktu bag that holds the laptop in a separate compartment that zips open so it can lay flat and not have to be taken out for TSA screening. But usually I now use either a large nylon tote with a padded envelope or a large satchel handbag and just carry around my iPad. I only use my briefcases when I go to court. When I travel and go to court I try to use just one bag (either a briefcase or large tote) as carrying a briefcase and a purse is cumbersome.

    I see most female lawyers in SoCal either using a briefcase or just a tote bag that fits everything.

    • Same here. I no longer litigate, but when I did I used: briefcase (slim, neat, zipped at the top, had 2 top handles and a longer strap if necessary) and a small black purse that shut at the top to carry my personal items.

      I wonder how much geography has to do with it. In SoCal (I’m in LA) we’re in our cars a lot, so we don’t have to carry everything around with us all day (gym clothes, etc.). It’s relatively easy to “travel light” when you’re having a day at court, because whatever you don’t need in court, you can leave in your car. I would imagine it’s a bit different in cities that use public transportation regularly (New York, DC, Chicago, Boston, etc.).

    • Chi litigator :

      Another long-time litigator here. When I go to trial I bring a paralegal who carries my stuff in a bankers box.

  18. During the week I carry a large open top purse that can fit a couple files and my laptop in a sleeve. If I need to take lots of work home, I use my wheeled bag similar to this

    I have a briefcase that I rarely use because it just gets too heavy to carry that much on my shoulder. I’m in D.C. and hardly ever see women carrying briefcases.

  19. I use a totebag/purse combo. It is the Kate Spade Griffin (sp?) bag that I got super cheap from Gilt. It’s large enough to carry all my stuff (files, shoes, lunch, wallet, etc.) yet it’s small enough that if I’m going out after work it passes as a larget purse. I really like it because it is tall w/ lots of pockets not wide which makes item placement easier (at least for me). I also like that it is a really soft croc embossed leather. It wouldn’t fit gym clothes, which isn’t a problem for me since my apt building has a gym.

  20. This is an excellently timed post. I recently watched the movie Post Grad (not very good) and Alexis Bledel’s character carries a sort of briefcase to her interviews. I’ll try to find a picture. I’ve been looking for something similar. I already have a great Nine West laptop carrier/tote bag that I love, but I don’t take my laptop to interviews and its really too big for an interview. I’m looking for something closer to the size of a portfolio that I can put my keys, phone, touch up makeup, etc in to carry to interviews. I’d love any suggestions.