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8 Different Types of Briefcases for Lawyers (Ultimate Guide)

Cropped image of a lawyer carrying a black briefcase going to the courthouse.

For many modern professionals, the briefcase has evolved into the messenger bag, but there is still one demographic for whom briefcases are still an essential accessory — lawyers. Every attorney needs a briefcase.

A lawyer’s briefcase telegraphs who they are before the first word is spoken. This makes the right briefcase essential to achieving a favorable first impression. Every lawyer needs a briefcase every working day, so choosing the right briefcase is an all-important first step in brand management. But lawyers aren’t limited to the traditional options in briefcases.

What was the traditional option in lawyers’ briefcases?

There was a time when the dress code for lawyers required a conservative suit or dress accompanied by an expandable leather briefcase, preferably in black. This briefcase was usually made with calfskin. It had a single thick leather handle and brass hardware.

The traditional briefcase for lawyers remains an option, but in the twenty-first-century manufacturers have used modern materials and production techniques to produce a range of options in briefcases to fit every lawyer’s unique style. We cover all of those styles in this article. But before we get into the details of styles of briefcases for lawyers, let’s review what is and is not acceptable in briefcases for attorneys.

What are the boundaries of acceptable style in briefcases for lawyers?

Briefcases for lawyers should always be aesthetically pleasing without being in any way ostentatious or outrageous (unless ostentation and outrageousness are part of the image you are crafting for yourself, and for lawyers seeking employment, they probably aren’t). Because you want to control the emotional impact of your appearance on clients, colleagues, and opposing counsel, your briefcase should be a neutral color. Black works in nearly every situation. Brown, tan, and navy are acceptable if they match your wardrobe.

It’s hard to go wrong with 100-percent genuine leather, but there are other materials that can be acceptable choices when the security of the documents you carry in your briefcase, and the impression that you are taking care with them, is of paramount in your relationship with your client.

Beyond aesthetics, there are also issues of organization and use. Do you need to keep large numbers of documents in order? Do you always carry your laptop? Are you a frequent flyer who needs something easy to get through security and easy stow in your overhead bin or under your seat?

Let’s start with a look at the most common styles of briefcases for lawyers. Keep in mind the fact lawyers need different kinds of briefcases in different situations.

Padfolio

Samsill 71756 Two-Tone Padfolio BWN Tan, Letter Size, Brown Black
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The thinnest and smallest briefcase available for lawyers or any other professional, the padfolio conveys a sense of informality and brevity for inter-office meetings designed to be conducted efficiently. This briefcase may also be appropriate for use in study groups for a law school class. (Lawyers begin cultivating their brand in law school.)

Padfolios do not have handles at the top. They are meant to be carried under the arm or in the hand. Because padfolios have a very thin frame, only small, flat objects fit in them.

They help lawyers stay organized without a full briefcase when they have to be away from their desks.

The competition for the padfolio is the old-fashioned manila envelope. A padfolio provides a much more professional presentation than a battered manila envelope that may have wound its away around the office several times.

A padfolio is a great place for storing not just paperwork for meetings but also business cards, notebook, and pen, making you ready for casual meetings with potential clients passing through the office and help you look more upscale than jotting down notes on a notepad. But no lawyer and no law student should make a padfolio their only briefcase.

Portfolio

Top view of a portfolio briefcase on a wooden background with pencils, pen, and a notebook.

The portfolio is a slightly larger version of a padfolio, large enough to accommodate a legal pad for taking notes in a client meeting, broad enough to fit an iPad or small flat screen. Because portfolios have handles, they are much easier to carry than padfolios.

Flap-Over Messenger Bag

Samsonite Colombian Leather Flap-Over Messenger Bag, Black, One Size
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A messenger bag is a dressed down version of a briefcase that is fine for coming into the office on weekends when you do not have scheduled meetings with clients or your seniors in the firm. It is stylish enough to convey casual professionalism, although you need an upscale messenger bag enough for weekday use. Both women and men can use flap-over messenger bags with straps.

Don’t Make the Briefcase Strap Mistake

Messenger bags traditionally come with carrying straps. After all, a bicycle messenger can’t steer a bike at high speed while hanging on to a bag handle with one hand. Messenger bags and briefcases with detachable straps are highly functional, but it is generally a good idea to avoid carrying straps if you are seeking to project a professional appearance.

Why is that?

Satchels, messenger bags, and, to a lesser extent, briefcases with straps are all associated with non-professional environments. They are fine for students, even most law students, but older associates and older clients may equate them with casual attire. That’s particularly true when the straps extend across your torso.

Briefcase straps can look sloppy. When you are carrying your briefcase, the strap will hang just inches above the floor and dangle from both sides. The clasps connecting the straps are metal, which can clink when you walk. It is almost impossible to fold the strap neatly when you put your briefcase down.

Steer clear of straps when you want to present a sharp, professional appearance. A detachable strap may not be a fashion faux pas when it is obvious that you are carrying a heavy laptop, but it’s best not to think in terms of what you can get away with.

Attaché

Samsonite Bonded Leather Attache, Black, One Size
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Attachés are the traditional briefcase. They are rigid, angular, and large. A traditional attaché case opened on the side to reveal two compartments, a larger compartment for papers and smaller compartment with pockets for writing implements, backup cell phones, and chargers. These briefcases are inexpensive and versatile, but they do not communicate a lawyer’s brand. Metal attaché cases, unless you are delivering cash or weapons are especially to be avoided in professional settings.

Roller Briefcase

Samsonite Xenon 3.0 Spinner Mobile Office, Black, One Size
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Roller briefcases cut down on the number of bags you need to check on your flight. They are a relatively easy way to carry heavy loads, although they are not a secure way to carry sensitive documents. But problems tend to outweigh benefits. There are some serious drawbacks to using roller briefcases:

  • Chances are that you won’t use your roller briefcase very often. Although there may be some brief interludes in your legal career when you will travel frequently, no one should pay $250 to $2500 for a briefcase they use only two or three times a year. Consider whether the expense is justified.
  • Collisions in high-density traffic. In a busy airport or a busy city jammed with foot traffic. Rolling a briefcase around with it getting caught or someone’s tripping over it requires you to move slowly and deliberately — and there are many times you need to walk quickly or even break into a sprint in airports and in urban settings. And you won’t be able to avoid situations in which the quickest way forward may be off a curb, smacking your laptop the force of a half-foot drop.
  • Roller briefcases are built tough for harsh treatment during travel. How can that be a problem? The toughness of the suitcase comes with added weight. The stronger the exterior, the greater the weight you will have to carry up escalators and in and out of cars.
  • Roller suitcases aren’t ideal for first impressions. They look like you are carrying your whole wardrobe and you plan on moving in. They are OK for transportation to your hotel, but entirely too bulky and noisy to bring into your client’s office.

Leather Expandable Briefcase

Samsonite Leather Expandable Briefcase, Black, One Size
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Leather expandable briefcases has multiple pocket and zippered pouches to keep papers, backup communications devices, and flat screens organized. Most leather expandable briefcases have a removable strap for carrying your case over your shoulder.

What should you look for in a leather expandable briefcase? You don’t want metal clips for the carrying strap made of metal that has been painted over. The paint can chip.

You want an outer frame that helps to maintain the briefcase’s shape. A bulky exterior looks unprofessional and makes the briefcase harder to carry.

Look for briefcases with a light-colored interior. This makes it easier to find things inside. And you want interior zippers that can give you even more space when you have to carry large numbers of documents. Make sure the handles (if you don’t want to carry it over the shoulder) are sturdy enough that they won’t tear or break when the contents are unusually heavy. They should be double stitched to make them sturdier.

The Thin Front Pocket Leather Briefcase

The thin front pocket leather briefcase is a sophisticated update of the saddle bags of the nineteenth century. Adapted from bags used to transport money and other valuables by stagecoach, this briefcase can be carried by its handles, hooked to a carrying strap to be carried across your body for greater security, or converted to a backpack.

Look for double stitching for durability. As with expandable leather briefcases, metal clips and rings should not be painted so they will not chip. Stainless steel is preferable to brass.

Better versions of this briefcase are lined with tough but soft pigskin.

The better examples of this style are made with full-grain leather. Full-grain leather is the top layer of cow skin.  It isn’t “genuine leather,” but it is the most durable and the most expensive part of the hide. Full-grain leather looks better with age. Your briefcase may not only outlast your career, it may become an heirloom.

The Laptop-Compatible Leather Briefcase

Laptop-Compatible Leather Briefcase

A laptop-compatible leather briefcase is a leather handbag large enough to carry a laptop, with pockets for documents, chargers, and smaller devices for an Internet connection. The exterior of this briefcase is designed like the bag carried by a bicycle messenger, but in rich leather and with stainless steel components for connecting the over the shoulder carrying strap. Briefcases in this style may or may not have exterior pockets.

The easiest mistake to make when buying this style of the briefcase is choosing a briefcase that is too small. The laptop-compatible leather briefcase that works for your MacBook may not be wide enough for you 17” Toshiba to fit.

Frequently Asked Questions About Choosing Briefcases for Lawyers

Q. Are there differences in briefcases for men and women in the legal profession?

A. Traditionally, women’s briefcases were rounded and roomier and men’s briefcases were more angular and smaller. Modern fashion trends are toward a unisex professional appearance and most briefcases are suitable for either men or women.

Q. What is the best color for a lawyer’s briefcase?

A. Any color you choose for your briefcase should coordinate with the clothes and shoes you wear. Black is easier for coordinating with most wardrobes.

Q. What are the most important considerations in choosing a briefcase that will accommodate a laptop?

A. The priority in choosing a briefcase for your laptop is making sure the briefcase is large enough that your laptop will it. Most briefcases are large enough for a 14” laptop, but they may not have much room left over for paperwork, stationery, business cards, a charger, and other devices. If you are taking your laptop on longer trips, you need a larger bag.

Another consideration is the security of your laptop. You will want a briefcase that locks, and additional padding to the sides and bottom of your briefcase to prevent damage to the computer within.

Q. I really need a strap for my briefcase. Are there any additional considerations for choosing a briefcase with a carrying strap?

A. Make sure that your briefcase has a top handle. You don’t want to use the strap for your briefcase in professional settings, but you also don’t want to cradle it like a football because you don’t have a top handle. The absence of a top handle should be a deal-breaker.

Additionally, it is important never to buy a briefcase that has painted hardware for clipping on the strap. Paint can chip.

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