Briefcase encounter

Kara Scannell

The FT’s US regulatory correspondent, New York

For many lawyers and financiers, the briefcase is a relic of the past. The slim, trunk-style leather case, with its short handles, just doesn’t fit in with their modern lifestyles.

As the world embraces electronic over paper documents, working women don’t need to tote around reams of papers. They prefer a bag that can double up as a purse and briefcase to hold cosmetics, an iPad or small laptop.

Annette Nazareth, a former US Securities and Exchange Commission commissioner, was given a leather briefcase when she left a brokerage firm to join the SEC in the late 1990s. “It’s still in the box,” she says. “It was too heavy to carry.” Now she uses a Vera Bradley microfibre tote bag that can carry files and a laptop.

“The world has changed,” echoes Peggy Foran, a top lawyer at Prudential Financial. The bag “has to be utilitarian these days. A briefcase that will only fit a few papers is not as efficient.” Plus, bustling through the streets of New York has another requirement. “You want to be able to use your hands,” she adds. Her choice is a black leather Coach bag.

For some women, the briefcase is too dated. Sallie Krawcheck, former president of Bank of America’s wealth business, rotates between structured black leather totes that can carry her purse contents and iPad. The shift to electronic media “makes the need for a briefcase seem even more 1986”, Krawcheck says. The luxury brands selling briefcases today seem just as outdated. “Don’t they still sell women’s briefcases in the same department as the 1980s floppy bows?” she asks.

When Karen Patton Seymour, a senior litigator at New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell, started out as a lawyer 25 years ago, she says: “You would spend money and time worrying about your briefcase”. Today, her old briefcases “may be at the top of a dusty closet”. She favours a tote bag, which she varies by season.

However, the traditional briefcase may find its best customer in young, eager lawyers trying to impress their bosses, or those channelling the Mad Men style that has spurred a rebirth of 1960s fashion. “I predict there will be some [new associates] showing up with traditional briefcases,” says Seymour. She occasionally sees “fashionable young people still carrying old-school briefcases”. The case for the briefcase remains open...

Stuart Kirk

Head of the FT’s Lex column

Probes on Mars, collateralised debt obligations, buttock implants – human ingenuity never ceases to amaze. So it is mystifying that there is no elegant solution to help the modern businessman carry stuff around. This failure is embarrassing, given the aeons we’ve had to work something out. Indeed, the netting bags that Aborigines used to weave from possum fur are more practical and aesthetically pleasing than most of today’s professional swags.

Sure, there are some drool-worthy details that could ease the return of the briefcase. Find a man who doesn’t love hand-stitched leather, a secret compartment for an iPhone charger, or the satisfying click of a solid gold fastener. But the trouble is that things go wrong when briefcases and businessmen mix. Classic attaché cases make even the most honest executives look like gangsters running cash across town, not to mention being impossible to open away from a flat surface. Try closing an important deal balancing a briefcase on your raised knee as you scramble to find a calculator. Yet they are beautiful things on their own, and still look great next to a large mahogany desk or on the passenger seat of an Aston Martin.

Meanwhile, softer document cases are too wimpy and best left for estate agents. Worse are the carriers suitable for laptops. They can reduce stylish senior managers to second-tier management consultants in seconds. Thus it has become trendy to hide laptops in a backpack, satchel or courier bag. But backpacks are for weekends, or for middle-office men who run or bicycle to work. As for satchels and messenger bags, only Indiana Jones and hipsters get away with them. Nothing says “Please fire me!” more than a strap worn across a nice suit.

No wonder so many professionals end up using plastic shopping bags – free, replaceable and waterproof. The Briefcase Conundrum is also why businessmen cannot wait for winter to come around so that pens, keys and The Economist for the train can be crammed into a coat. But what to do in these warmer months?

One answer is to carry as little as possible. Going light has the added benefit of making men appear more senior, in the same way that chief executives always have the barest offices. Of course, the best solution is to hire someone to walk a short distance behind you carrying your possessions in one of this season’s beautiful designer briefcases – leaving you looking stylish and important.

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