Women's professional bags and briefcases

This post is part of "Dress for Success," a series of 15 posts. You can start at the beginning or see all posts in the series.

Well designed, fashionable, professional-yet-functional bags and briefcases for women are so hard to find. I surveyed over 500 women lawyers on email lists, Facebook, and Twitter, in order to compile this list of briefcases for women. The list includes a wide range of names, styles, colors, and interesting lesser-known brands, all of which can accommodate a laptop.

These are my three rules for a well-designed bag for lawyers:

  1. Strap. Some bags don’t come with straps, which means you have to carry it in your hand. This is impractical and annoying. You often need both hands to grab something out of your bag, and you can’t do that if you have to carry the bag by the handle instead of over your shoulder. (Bonus points if the strap doesn’t dig into your shoulder, especially right over a bra strap.)
  2. Functional. This obviously depends on what you need to carry. I tend to travel light and often the most I need to squeeze into a bag is a laptop and a one-inch folder (along with the usual woman stuff like makeup). Carefully considering how much room you need and what you will be carrying will make your briefcase more lovable in the long term. Another nice-to-have feature is a bag with feet that can stand on its own. It is nice to be able to set down your bag without worrying about it falling over.
  3. Feels good and/or feminine. When I graduated from law school, I had a men’s Coach briefcase. I bought it because I loved the feel of the leather, it was highly functional, and it was well built. Back then, I wanted a bag that will help me blend in and having a bag that looked similar to the ones my male counterpart was carrying helped me feel more comfortable.
    As I matured and became more comfortable as a lawyer, I felt it was important to bring more of myself and my personality not only to what I what I wore, but to all aspects of my law practice. Having a bag that I felt comfortable carrying, with the right blend of femininity and function, became more important to me. I didn’t want to be a generic lawyer, and leaving behind the men’s Coach briefcase was one small step towards finding my footing.

The balance between professional, functional, and not too frumpy or too sexy makes it a challenge to find a briefcase or bag. The recommendations from the lawyers I surveyed were mostly a variation on the traditional briefcase or tote. There were also many suggestions for rolling bags, which are especially helpful if you have to carry a lot of weight and negotiate high heels at the same time.

Best Women’s Professional Bags Under $100

I was certainly not the only lawyer to leave behind the “masculine” bag and traded it in for a more feminine one. Here’s what Maureen Hodson, attorney at Hunsucker Goodstein said about her Kenneth Cole Hit a Triple bag:

Kenneth Cole Hit a Triple Bag

Kenneth Cole Hit a Triple Tote – $49

For years I used a really ugly masculine bag and longed for something more feminine. I found it about a year ago, and though inexpensive, this has served me well. 

Hodson recommended this bag not only because of how it looks but because of its function:

I like that it has dedicated space for both an ipad and laptop, with plenty of room for legal pads and a redwell or two. The external pockets are great for dropping my office keys into. The center compartment (which holds the laptop) unzips all the way, which is really nice for when you need to stack a bunch of stuff in there!

Another brand that falls into the feminine yet functional bag is from Solo. I included it because they have a large collection under $100. Here’s the Solo Jay:

Solo Jay bag

Solo Jay – $58

Best Women’s Professional Bags for $100-$250

Another big factor in considering the bag is how it feels against the body. I love bags that hugs the body, like this Piel Hobo laptop bag:

Piel Hobo bag

Piel Hobo – $148

It has wider straps and hugs the shoulder and allows the bag to sit in between the arm and the side of the body. It also comes in 4 colors, which is always an added bonus.

Many of the women lawyers I interviewed chose men’s briefcases. It makes sense in many ways. They’re functional, there are lots of options, and it does the job — carrying your stuff from point A to point B with ease and comfort.

Of all the men’s bags recommendations, my favorite one was the Knomo Henderson bag:

Knomo Henderson bag

Knomo Henderson – $250

Lisette Sell, attorney at Cooley LLP, said she chose this bag because it is “feminine and functional.” She “wanted a bag that was just the right size. Wanted more than just a laptop bag but didn’t want a large clunky bag. I am not very big/tall and didn’t want to have to haul around a bulky bag.”

Unlike all the other bags listed in this post, this Michael Kors Jet Set bag isn’t specifically for a laptop, although you can place a laptop in the middle compartment. Oftentimes, you’re limited to one or two colors when it comes to professional bags. The Jet Set bags comes in three sizes and dozens of colors and patterns:

Michael Kors Jet Set bag

Michael Kors Jet Set – $225

Professional Women’s Bags for $250 to $1,000

I received two recommendations for MZ Wallace bags. Both lawyers described their MZ as durable and functional:

MZ Wallace Metro tote bag

MZ Wallace Metro Tote – $300

Jodi Swick, partner at Edison, McDowell & Hetherington llp said,

It will hold several folders of documents (or a binder), a laptop and a pair of shoes. It also has outside pockets for your phone, pens, etc. Mine has literally been around the world.

Tumi has one of the best collection of women’s briefcases, and there were multiple votes for Tumi bags, both for style and function. As Shoshana Chazan, attorney at Sodexo, Inc., puts it:

Tumi has some great options. I have an old one that, even after the dog used it as a chew toy at one point, still looks (and works) great.

Erin McDermit, attorney at Shuman Snyder said,

Tumi is all I have ever used. quality and simple/classic styles.

The Tumi Sinclair is just the right size, black, and goes with everything. Like most of the other Tumi bags, it is highly functional, with a large interior compartment that is great for bulky files:

Tumi Sinclair bag

Tumi Sinclair – $545

Professional Women’s Bags Over $1,000

There are obviously well-known luxury brands in the over-$1,000 club, like the classic Louis Vuitton Neverfull:

Louis Vuitton Neverfull bag

Louis Vuitton Neverfull – $2899

For your best Olivia Pope impression, bring the classic Prada Saffiano Lux Executive Tote to a settlement conference:

Prada Saffiano Tote bag

Prada Saffiano Tote – $1999

Best Overall Professional Women’s Bag

If you have the budget, the absolutely best professional bag is made to order by master leather craftsman Myron Glaser.

Elizabeth A. Frohlich, partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, said:

I loooooove this work tote that I have used every day and for court for 8 years, and still get compliments. I am a BigLaw partner, so need something that can go formal, too. It is very expensive, but is a real workhorse, made of delicious leather. Mine is black with silver hardware. Myron Glaser at Glaser Designs will customize, too.

Glaser Designs Custom Tote bag

Glaser Designs Custom Totes – $1,000-$2,000+

The best women’s professional bag is a custom tote handmade by Myron Glaser of Glaser Designs in San Francisco.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

Best Women’s Bag: Glaser Designs Custom Tote Bag, reviewed by Jeena Cho on based on an earlier article written by Staci Zaretsky on April 15th, 2011.

Featured image: “shopping in the city in motion blur” from Shutterstock.

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