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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ditching the Briefcase for a Backpack - The Tom Bihn Synapse 25

In 2012 we sent our office manager (and now recently trained mediator), Melissa Day, to the ABA Tech Show with one mission:  bring back a plan for transitioning our office to a paperless office.  We have discovered that in the legal business this is never a complete process, but an ongoing mission.  Becoming a paperless office requires finding the right balance with clients and other professionals who aren't ready to take that leap, as well as constantly reevaluating the technology we use.

Three years later, it is probably the most important practice management decision we've made, and we're still learning all of the ways it impacts our office.  For the most part, we believe having everything stored electronically gives us more flexibility with our client interactions, storage options, backup, and recently I took a second look at that most iconic of business/lawyer technology: the briefcase.

Without Briefs I Don't need a Briefcase!

While briefcases have evolved, they ultimately are still designed for something I'm not carrying anymore.  The briefcase is, by definition, meant to carry paper briefs, and most are poorly designed to carry a laptop, tablets, smartphone and all the cords that go with them.  Of course, that's no surprise because lawyers aren't exactly the quickest at adopting new technologies or trends (want a ridiculous example: it seems pantsuits are still frowned upon for women in big law).

It is my experience that small firms stand out by being the first to adopt new trends, while big law lags behind.  Julie Tolek, one of the attorney/mediators in our office explains this simply by describing herself as a "lawyer for humans."  Rather than carry a square case better suited for a robot, I decided to take a closer look at the human functions I really want out of my work bag.  My priorities were:
  1. Protect my Laptop
  2. Protect my Tablet
  3. Have enough space for the other work related items I need to carry (business cards and other marketing swag, cords, pen drives, water bottle, etc.)
  4. Work well for Travel
  5. Be comfortable
  6. Not look horrible
This is a pretty simple list and many laptop bags will fit these priorities fairly well, but only one really stood out: the Tom Bihn Synapse 25.


Yes, that is a Bat'leth letter opener.
You won't find a Tom Bihn in your local big box store and frankly I might not have heard about them if not for some great reviews that are already available online including a thorough review from the Snarky Nomad and a review on the ABA's site by a fellow legal techie, Heidi Alexander.  Since those other reviews have covered in great depth the functionality and features of the Synapse, I'm just going to tell you how it answered the needs of this paperless lawyer:

Protection: My first priority was protecting the investments that I carry around and which allow me to maintain a paperless office: laptops and tablets.  The Synapse has a great design for carrying and accessing my laptop (and for traveling with it through TSA checkpoints), using a rails system and an interior cache.  More importantly, the bag itself has a durable feel to it and I am very comfortable that my laptop and tablet are safe in this bag.

All the Small Things:   Tom Bihn has considered so many tiny design details all of which taken individually would be impressive on their own, but which together add up to a significant improvement over other laptop bag options.

Tom Bihn's accessories page is a very exciting place for an organization geek.  There are numerous options for thoughtfully arranging the items you pack into the interior of your bag, including smaller bags, and even smaller bags, and... you get the idea.  Anything that helps me organize my work bag and access what I need from it quickly helps me do my job more efficiently.

My favorite accessory by far is the snake charmer, which fits perfectly in the bottom pocket of the Synapse and holds all my laptop accessories and cords in one place.  I don't know why it never occurred to me before to consolidate all my cords in a smaller bag, but this has proved very convenient.

A Backpack? Aren't you worried about looking unprofessional?

Now that my practice focuses primarily on mediation and less on litigation, I worry less about appearances and more about practicality and efficiency.  Clients who come to my office want solutions not a hired gun, and they respect efficiency more than flashiness.  I have used messenger bags and briefcases and my biggest complaint about both is that they are not comfortable over a lengthy period of time.  Even if you have a light laptop, when you start adding cords, and tablets and other accessories, your bag will have considerable weight.  Just adding a water bottle makes a huge difference in how long I can put up with a messenger bag over one shoulder.

While still a backpack, the Synapse straddles the line of professional and practical.  Without getting into a full feature review, there are two features I think highlight this thoughtful design:

First, the Synapse is designed around a central water-bottle sized pocket, which makes it more comfortable to carry for a distance with a heavy bottle.  This is an ingenious backpack improvement if you've ever hiked with a backpack that holds the water bottle hanging off to the side. Despite having this amazing hiking feature, it still has a very simple straightforward design that doesn't have to look like you're hiking.  The other simple design element that adds to the professional look of the Synapse is the inclusion of removable chest and waist straps.

Ultimately, I decided that the comfort of a backpack far outweighed any concerns that it might not be as stylish with a suit.  The Synapse allowed me to retain as much style as possible in the backpack form, especially with the significant array of color combinations (my color choice was gray with purple lining - matching one of my favorite suit & tie combinations).

P.S. Working with nice people is nice! The final point I want to make is one that wasn't even on my radar when I started looking for a new work bag.  I am admittedly lazy at times regarding the quality of the company that I am buying from.  As the owner of a small business, I make so many purchasing decisions that sometimes I don't take the time to get to know who I'm doing business with.  But once in a while a company reminds you why that matters.  Tom Bihn, as a company, impressed me in two immediate ways that make me want to see them succeed:  great customer service and local manufacturing pride.

Hollie, their Bag Guru, e-mailed back and forth with me for three days (replying almost immediately every time) to answer every question I had about the Synapse and how it might fit my needs.  This attention to detail seems to be present in their attitude about how they manufacture their products as well. Manufacturers have a lot of cheap options for materials and labor outside the United States, but Tom Bihn tells you on their website about the importance they place on making their product in America.  Even more impressive than the sentiment is the fact that their whole operation is visible on their website: including a web-bio for each of their seamsters and seamstresses.  How unusual and cool is that!

Customer service is something you just can't fake, and while it doesn't drive my initial buying choice as often as it should, it will bring me back to a company again and again.  Tom Bihn was kind enough to provide me with this Synapse 25 to review, but I am so impressed by it and them that they have been bookmarked as my first site to visit the next time I need any type of travel, fun or work bag.

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