Who should get a briefcase
A briefcase projects an aura that signifies you’re a professional in a serious field. And it’s still the gift people buy when their kid graduates from law school or finishes an MBA.
Practically, it’s a holdover from the days when most office jobs required more formal dress, so unless you’re in an industry where you do wear a suit (or at least a jacket or coat) to work every day, a backpack or messenger bag will do a better job of distributing the contents’ weight, saving your shoulder and spine from some grief.
You can distinguish a briefcase from a satchel or messenger bag in that it’s designed to be carried primarily by a hand strap or handle. Carrying a bag by its shoulder strap can damage the shoulder of your coat since it puts a large amount of pressure on the garment, which can crumple or destroy the underlying structure. Although most modern briefcases come with shoulder straps, they’re meant for temporary use—while you’re running for the train, for instance—not for lugging around your entire office.
If you plan to get a briefcase, you’ll be happiest and most comfortable if you keep in mind that these bags are designed for short trips between car, office, and boardroom, or for commuters who can travel light. If you try to load one up with a water bottle, your gym clothes, and a bunch of extras, you’ll be very displeased.
Most versatile Stuart Lau Cary Single Briefcase
An all-purpose option
The Cary is comfortable to wear, has an impressive capacity, and will look good dressed up or down.
Who this is for: If you want a stylish-looking briefcase that can be used with almost any outfit—from a full suit to jeans and a bomber jacket.
Why it’s great: The Stuart & Lau Cary Single Briefcase offers a combination of style, capacity, and comfort unmatched by any other briefcase we tested in 2018. Despite being made from nylon, Cary’s fully waterproof exterior looks more luxurious than it does utilitarian, thanks to its refined leather handles, straps, and details. The pairing of nylon and leather gives the bag aesthetic flexibility—whether your daily attire is a pinstripe navy suit or a pair of dark jeans and a printed button-up shirt, the Cary will match your look. The original bag we tested in 2018 was updated and renamed the Single in 2019.
Beyond these basic features, the bag is chock-full of little extra delights, including a magnetic tab for keys that can dock to an internal wall and a sleeve that slides over a rolling suitcase’s handle for easy travel. Plus, Stuart & Lau’s bags are all guaranteed by a lifetime limited warranty against manufacturer’s defects.
Pockets and organization: The Cary has enough pockets and sleeves to easily hold everything you’ll need for a day at the office, and then some. Inside its main zippered compartment, there is a lightly padded 15-inch laptop sleeve, four small pockets (including one sized for a paperback book or an e-reader), a narrow pocket for pens and pencils, and two zippered mesh pockets. It has leather straps on the front that you can slide an umbrella through, and a few pockets for small miscellaneous items. On the back, the bag hides an easy-to-access but discreet zippered pouch for your cell phone, and there’s another large sleeve with a magnetic closure.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Stuart & Lau Cary’s robust organizational system can feel like too much of a good thing. Its large capacity might encourage you to fill the bag with just about everything you could imagine—clothes, lunches, textbooks. Doing this seems like a more efficient use of space, but it’ll just make the already heavy Cary unpleasant to walk around with. That said, this is a problem of all briefcases of this size. As long as you’re aware of what you’re packing, you should have no trouble holding the briefcase by its handles as you travel through your day.
Size and weight (empty): 12 by 16 by 3.9 inches
Colors: navy/tan, navy/black, olive/black, black/black, brown/dark brown, brown/tan
Most travel-friendly Tumi Alpha 2 T-Pass Laptop Briefcases
A laptop briefcase upgrade for travelers
This Tumi model is specialized for travel and has useful features for the frequent flyer.
Who this is for: Frequent business travelers, who want a warranty that will even cover airline damage.
Why it’s great: The Tumi Alpha 2 T-Pass Medium Screen Laptop Slim Brief is made for travel. Its thick nylon exterior will help repel water and withstand the many elements you might experience while rushing through airports and traversing new cities. The bag has a large enough capacity to carry everything that’s necessary without appearing bloated. Most people will choose to carry the Tumi using its namesake T-Pass, which allows you to easily attach it to the handle of your carry-on. But if you don’t, rest assured, its soft leather handle and exceptional shoulder strap ensure you’ll be comfortable hiking from one gate to another. And should anything go wrong, Tumi offers a more comprehensive five-year warranty than most, covering airline/transit damage for the first two years and manufacturing defects for the full five. If you register your bag, Tumi also provides a lost-luggage recovery program called Tracer, but we can’t comment on its efficacy.
Pockets and organization: This bag can open flat for passing through TSA, but if you don’t need that, you can limit how wide it opens using snaps, so it doesn’t accidentally flop all the way open. In addition to the laptop sleeve—which you can adjust the capacity of using foam inserts—the bag’s interior has two full-length pockets, one of which zips shut. Externally, it offers a waterproof pocket that can hold a small umbrella (so you don’t get your important gear and papers wet) but is big enough to accommodate a standard 600-milliliter bottle. You’ll also find a full-length exterior zip pocket with two subpockets, as well as an RFID-protected pouch, a key loop, and a half-width pocket with space for pens, cables, and business cards.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: If you fly often for work, there’s a good chance you already have TSA Precheck, so you don’t need the lie-flat abilities of the Tumi Alpha 2. If TSA-compliance isn’t a compelling proposition for you, you’re not looking for an extended warranty, and you don’t like the slightly bulging look of the Tumi, there are other options out there that are sleeker and more affordable—like the Stuart & Lau.
Size and weight: 12 by 16 by 3 inches; 3 pounds, 5 ounces
Colors: black, pewter
A chic option with a smaller capacity: Knomo Hanover
A stylish and slim option
This fashion-forward bag will hold your laptop and a few essentials, but not much more.
Who this is for: Someone looking for a sleek and stylish bag—and who needs to carry only a light load.
Why it’s great: For a small briefcase, the Knomo Hanover has an impressive capacity. The light bag holds a 15-inch laptop, an e-reader, a notebook, a portable USB battery pack, pens, pencils, and several cables. Even when filled with all of this stuff, the bag keeps a slim profile that accentuates its striking detailing. The water-resistant nylon exterior of the black model we tested features a leather accent band and golden zippers. This style pairs well with a more formal outfit—like a simple wool suit or black dress—or can be used to dress up a more casual look.
The Hanover’s handles are very comfortable to hold, especially if you have smaller hands. Even though they’re a little thin, they have rounded edges that won’t bite into your hand. The bag also has a simple shoulder strap that lacks padding (which would be more of an issue if it was possible to overload this small bag).
Pockets and organization: The Hanover is a little light on the organization. It has a single main middle zippered compartment that has a divider to keep your laptop secure and separate from the rest of your things. On the outside, there is a metallic closure that opens to a flat pocket for a few documents, cables, or pens. It also has two zippered pockets with RFID protection in the front, sized for a passport or small electronic device.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: We like the aesthetics of the Hanover, but they might clash with your personal style, especially if you tend to dress more casually. And while this bag has a good capacity for how small it is, once you hit that capacity adding anything more makes it look bulgy and misshapen—and the thin handles aren’t designed for heavyweights. We don’t recommend a briefcase for anyone who tends to overpack; this bag, in particular, has almost no flexibility to accommodate extras. For instance, if you pack carefully and strategically, it’s possible to pack an umbrella in the bottom bucket of the main pocket, but it’ll be at the expense of the bag’s slim silhouette. Once you’ve packed a laptop, a notebook, something to read, and charging cables for your workday, you might find it challenging to add even a small snack to the Hanover.
Size and weight: 11 by 14.5 by 2.5 inches; 1 pound, 8 ounces
Colors: black (both 14- and 15-inch sizes), cherry, gray, off-white (listed by the manufacturer as Canvas, which is a different fabric from the one we tested)
A more organized but less stylish small bag: In case Reform 15″ Brief with Tensaerlite
A minimalist briefcase for less
If you don’t want to spend much and you need a small, affordable bag that’s nicely laid out, this will work well for light loads.
Who this is for: Someone who wants a light and slim briefcase, but prioritizes affordable and well-organized over chic and stylish.
Why it’s great: Of all the affordable bags we looked at, the Incase Reform 15″ Brief with Tensaerlite was the most impressive. It’s a slim bag with a well-designed internal layout that holds much more than it might appear. Luckily, the bag is comfortable to wear even when packed to the brim. This is due largely to the bag’s 300-weight polyester fabric exterior, which won’t resist abrasion as well as nylon or waxed canvas, but feels light and soft. It’s also helpful that both the bag’s shoulder bag and handle are padded, making it more comfortable for long days than other small briefcases we’ve looked at, especially if you overpack. You’ll have no trouble carrying this bag in either arrangement.
Pockets and organization: Incase has a reputation for excellent internal layouts, and that holds true for the Reform. This bag has a dedicated hard-shell internal case for your laptop that shuts with a magnetic closure flap, and it can open to lie flat for TSA compliance. The second section has more pockets in one place than any of the other bags we looked at—a strip of nine in different sizes and shapes, one of which has a Velcro closure.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Although the shoulder strap is comfortable, it attaches to the top corners of the bag rather than the sides; such a design is okay most of the time, but the zipper track deforms if the bag is heavily loaded, making it difficult to close. The Reform’s design reads “techie” rather than “stylish”—while it’s not a bad-looking bag, it may look out of place in a more formal office environment. Incase offers a scant one-year warranty, so you shouldn’t expect this bag to last as long as the Tumi Alpha 2 T-Pass or the Stuart & Lau—but at its price, that’s no surprise.
Size and weight: 11.5 by 15 by 2.5 inches; 1 pound, 10 ounces
Colors: heather black, heather gray, black, nylon black (which uses a different, tougher exterior fabric than the model we reviewed)
Most hearty Filson Original Briefcase
Filson Original Briefcase
If you don’t need as much structure and want something as tough as nails, this bag comes with a lifetime warranty that covers wear and tear.
Who this is for: Someone who works in a casual environment but still wants a briefcase—and wants something hard-wearing.
Why it’s great: The Filson name has long been a byword for rugged quality, and the Filson Original Briefcase is part of that legacy. While definitely on the less formal end of the spectrum for a briefcase, it’s still good-looking enough that it won’t seem totally out of place accompanying a tweed coat or a blazer. It’s water-repellent, with a storm flap to make doubly sure your laptop doesn’t get splashed. For its straps, it uses bridle leather, the result of a post-dyeing process that treats the leather with oils and then wax on both sides. This procedure creates a stiffer leather that takes longer to break in but is smooth, hard-wearing, and traditionally blessed with a deeper color.
Pockets and organization: Inside the main section, the Filson Original has two full-length laptop or folder pockets, as well as a series of smaller internal pockets for miscellanea. It also sports a large outer pocket on either side for tucking in minor flat extras like newspapers.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Filson Original is perhaps too rugged and casual for more-formal situations, especially with its huge metal fixtures and thick waxed-canvas exterior, but you can be the judge of that based on the occasion and venue.
Size and weight (when empty): 13 by 16 by 3.5 inches; 3 pounds, 6 ounces
Colors: tan, olive, black
Luxurious leather minimalism: Linjer Soft Briefcase
Linjer Soft Briefcase Gorgeous leather minimalism
If you’re willing to invest in a beautiful leather bag and don’t need to carry a lot, Linjer’s briefcase offers a sophisticated and sleek design.
Who is this for: Someone who wants a briefcase for a formal or business setting (though it can be dressed down), and a bag that will stay looking new over the years rather than developing a patina.
Why it’s great: The Linjer’s clean lines, firm structure, and impressive detailing stand out from other briefcases and mark it as more at home in a formal business setting. Soft to the touch, the Linjer is rigid enough to stand upright when empty without deforming or flopping. Without the bulky external pockets of the Custom Hide or the soft shape of the Fossil bag, it’s a more formal bag that pairs well with a suit. It’s constructed of chrome-tanned leather, which is less likely to scuff and doesn’t develop a unique patina the way veg-tanned leathers used in other bags do—a look that will stay sleek and refined, rather than rustic and pleasingly beat-up.
The Linjer is also a really good deal: it’s rare to see to a briefcase with such even leather coloration, precise stitching, and firm structure at this price. Other minimalist briefcases tend to have squishier leather that stretches and pulls more; less uniform-looking hide or is constructed of other materials—all of which add up to less formal-looking bags. Once you start to spend more on brands like Berluti, Mulberry, or Burberry, you can find things that look more like the Linjer, but for much more money.
Pockets and organization: The minimalism of the Linjer Soft Briefcase means that it doesn’t have quite the organizational array that we’ve seen in other bags. It offers only one primary pocket, with a sleeve for a laptop, one other sleeve, and space for business cards, a small battery or phone, and two pens. The bag also has one external pocket, but it’s tiny and flat, and not suited to anything more than a luggage tag, a slim smartphone, or a passport. That’s it. No large external pockets, no pass-through for attachment to a carry-on bag handle. You’ll be toting a light load with this briefcase, if only by necessity.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: As we mentioned above, this is a small bag, with little in the way of organization. You won’t be filling it up with everything you need for a long day. Anything beyond a laptop, a tablet, and a few extra bits and pieces slightly overfill it.
In our tests, the shoulder strap felt a bit slippery as if it didn’t want to stay in place properly when we were out and about, but it should form to your shoulder better with time. In the past, Linjer has had difficulty keeping the Soft Briefcase in stock—it was completely unavailable to purchase for long stretches of 2018.
Leather is not waterproof. You can coat it (Linjer recommends Collonil) for some resistance, but bad weather will stain your gorgeous expensive bag, probably permanently. Linjer’s warranty is excellent, but as the company is relatively youngy, we don’t know how well its bags will hold up to years of wear.
Size and weight: 12 by 16 by 3 inches; 2 pounds, 6 ounces
Colors: mocha, navy, black
A clean-looking leather briefcase: Fossil Haskell Double Zip Briefcase
Fossil Haskell Double Zip Briefcase workhorse leather option
This simple-looking leather bag has a large capacity and ample organization.
Who this is for: Someone who wants a simply styled, high-capacity leather bag
Why it’s great: The Fossil Haskell Double Zip Briefcase packs all of your essentials and stays comfortable to carry. The sleek bag holds a 15-inch laptop, a tablet or paperback book, a separate e-reader, a notebook, an umbrella, a USB battery pack, pens, pencils, and all relevant charging cables with further room to spare. But even when it’s full, the Haskell maintains its silhouette, because its canopy is divided into two zippered sections that encourage organized packing. Though it’s made of leather, the Haskell is relatively lightweight, barely more than 2½ pounds, substantially less than any other leather bag we looked at. It’s comfortable to carry with either the soft leather handle or the shoulder strap.
Pockets and organization: The Haskell’s two zippered pockets are well organized: One of them has a 15-inch laptop sleeve and a larger canopy; the other pocket features a few smaller sleeves for slim books, e-readers, or incidental cables.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Fossil isn’t likely to turn heads or draw attention to itself with its understated aesthetics. And it’s leather handle is a little more rigid than that on many of the other bags we considered. We expect that it will soften with a bit more use, but the existence of a break-in period is a tad annoying. Unfortunately, the bag has only a limited, one-year warranty that covers “defects in material or workmanship.”
Size and weight: 13 by 16 by 3.5 inches; 2 pounds, 10 ounces
For a classic look Custom Hide Organizer Laptop Briefcase
Custom Hide Organizer Laptop Briefcase of traditional leather
This large bag is made of thick leather that’ll last for years, but it weighs more than we’re comfortable recommending for most people.
Who this is for: Someone who wants a very traditional, high-quality leather briefcase—and is willing to pay for it.
Why it’s great: If you want a traditional leather briefcase with a larger capacity, look no further than the Custom Hide Organizer Laptop Briefcase. Custom Hide provides high-quality traditional leather bags at a lower price than many other bag manufacturers (such as Saddleback) charge, and it backs them up with an impressive lifetime warranty. The policy covers anything except “scratches, soils, and normal wear and tear,” and we’ve seen reports online of the company being as good as its word. Custom Hide told us its leather briefcase is treated for water resistance and that water stains are covered under the warranty, but that other stains are not.
Pockets and organization: The Custom Hide doesn’t have as much internal organization as other briefcases—though that may be for the best, since adding yet more leather would bump the weight up even more. It has two main pockets, one of which is slightly narrower, with extra padding for a laptop. The other has a small zippered section for a notebook, as well as four pen slots, a spot for a phone, and for business cards.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: No two ways about it: This is by far the heaviest bag we tested. Empty and without the shoulder strap, it weighs 4 pounds, 3 ounces. By the time you load up this bag with all your gear, it will be exceedingly heavy. In 2019, Custom Hide changed the lining leather of this briefcase to glove leather, which lowered the bag’s weight from 5 pounds 2 ounces, and which the company says is even more durable. Even with the lighter leather, we don’t think the bag is suited for carrying for a long day, but if you’re only ducking from your car into the office, or from your desk to a conference room, it might work for you.
Size and weight: 11.5 by 16 by 5 inches; 4 pounds, 3 ounces
Colors: whiskey, brown, black
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