When I was a government staffer, most of the meetings I attended were in the building, so I could easily sashay in with a notebook, a pen and Blackberry in tote and look professional. When I moved to the dark side (registered lobbyist), I realized that I would be running from House side to Senate side, to other associations, to PAC events, etc and I needed more than a simple notebook.
After cycling through several bags, I found that there are certain things you need to look for.
Not too big, not too small.
Also known as the Goldilocks Theorem. You need a bag big enough to carry all the crap you need to do your job (post to come) but small enough that you don't smack into people in a crowded hearing room like a drunk girl wearing fairy wings on Halloween. You also want to make sure that you can slide your bag under a seat at a briefing and not be a fire hazard if it sits next to your chair at a meeting.
Something in the neighborhood of 15 inches tall and 11 inches wide seems to work well, although it varies by your height. Also, keep in mind that this does not include shoulder straps, which brings me to...
Think about the coats!
If you are looking for a bag for winter, make sure you bring your heaviest coat for trying on. Even if it's in the middle of summer. You want it to fit comfortably over your shoulder and snug enough to clasp with your elbow on the Metro or whatnot.
Color Me Interesting.
Perhaps surprisingly, I'm not a huge fan of the black bag. When I buy a bag, I want to be able to grab it and go, no matter what I'm wearing and I find that black actually clashes more with my wardrobe than brown, navy, yellow, etc. I also think black looks a little harsh sometimes. There is a girl in my office who carries a green hobo that looks fab and I'm just totally in love with navy.
It's What's on the Inside that Counts
Pockets. Look for pockets. This is the main reason I would never recommend a Longchamp Pliage for work. Imagine you are at a hearing and need to discreetly reach down and grab a pen, your blackberry, a business card, whatevs. And you are sitting behind the witness and you are SURE you are on CSPAN. Now, you definitely do NOT want to haul your bag onto your lap and go digging around in there for what you need. With practice, you can nab your essentials without looking down if they are properly secured in a side pocket. Provided that you have them...
Make sure your bag actually closes. And opens. Easily and quickly. I once tried a bag that didn't *quite* close when filled to capacity and I spent several months going to meetings totally embarrassed that people could see my bottle of advil, tampax, Safeway receipts for said advil and tampax etc. if the bag bent the wrong way and the magnetic closure released. I can't imagine how many important things I missed at hearings trying to prevent the lobbyist next to me from reading my CVS Extra Care Card number in my purse. I was also tired of the Capitol Police snickering at me every time stuff spilled out onto the x-ray belt.
You also want to be sure that said bag closes swiftly and easily. You don't want to waste those precious minutes between when the meeting ends and the handshakes and cards are exchanged struggling to close up your bag. No one likes a straggler.
Look, I completely understand that very few people are able to really shell out for a work bag. But let me make the case for buying the best bag you can afford.
First, you are going to be carrying this every single week day. And most weekends if you choose carefully. Break down the price into cost per wear and you see how that starts to not sounds totally outrageous.
Second, I know it's awful, but people judge you on your bag. Men spend a crap ton of money on a briefcase, you should treat yourself similarly. It makes a difference when you walk into a meeting looking put together and sleek, and the right bag helps that happen. Those weeks I spent struggling to contain my purse? Not my finest at work. I'm just saying.
Third, a good looking bag elevates any outfit. If you carry a good looking bag, the rest of your wardrobe, even if totally neutral and basic can look rich and sophisticated.
So, in summation, it's not about dropping a ton of cash, but really making sure you are buying the best you can afford.
Your boss will thank you.