Not since its pursuit was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence has “happiness” had a bigger cultural moment than now, and not just because of that “room without a roof” earworm. There is a new and rapidly growing science of happiness, a mash-up of economics and psychology sometimes called “hedonics,” which tells us that money can buy happiness, but only to a point. Meanwhile, in corporate America, we witness the emergence of a new C-suite character, the Chief Happiness Officer, who is responsible for employee contentment. Sort of like an HR director, but smiling and magical.

Recently, the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper, “Unhappy Cities,” reporting the findings of a major survey asking respondents about their satisfaction with life. The authors, academics from Harvard and the University of British Columbia, found that there are persistent differences in self-reported subjective well-being across U.S. cities and, unsurprisingly, residents of declining cities are less happy than other Americans. (Interestingly, the authors suggest that these unhappy, declining cities were also unhappy during their more prosperous pasts.)

So there are unhappy cities; there are also unhappy (and relatively happier) law schools. When ATL’s own Staci Zaretsky learned that Springfield, Massachusetts — home of her alma mater, the Western New England University School of Law — made the list of unhappiest cities, it came as no surprise: “It’s hard to tell where the local misery ends and that of the law school begins.” Prompted by Staci’s observation, we wondered whether unhappy cities make for unhappy local law students. Or is the law school experience so intense and self-contained that one’s surroundings have little impact? What are law students in the happiest (and unhappiest) cities in the country telling us about their own personal satisfaction?

The ATL Insider Survey asks current students to rate their schools in the areas of academics, financial aid advising, career services, practical/clinical training, and social life. Ratings are on a scale from 1 (“very unsatisfied”) to 4 (“very satisfied”). For all law student respondents to the ATL Insider Survey, the average overall score is 3.17.

Here are the cities on the top 10 happiest and unhappiest cities lists as determined by the NBER study, matched with — where we have the data — the overall satisfaction ratings of the law students in that locale. (The lists have fewer than 10 cities because we do not have law student data for all cities.)

Happiest Cities

City NBER Rank Student Rating
Nashville, TN 8th happiest 3.44
Raleigh-Durham, NC 2 3.29
Norfolk-Virginia-Newport News, VA 4 3.22
Atlanta, GA 5 3.14
Washington, DC 3 3.03
Houston 6 3.07
Richmond-Petersburg, VA 1 2.81



Unhappiest Cities

City NBER Rank Student Rating
Milwaukee, WI 4th unhappiest 3.40
St. Louis, MO 7 3.22
Philadelphia, PA 10 3.20
Pittsburgh, PA 2 3.19
New York, NY 1 3.07



So the possible takeaway here is that law students do appear to lead existences detached from their immediate surroundings. In the four of the seven “happy cities” for which we have law student data, the overall satisfaction rating was actually below average. In what the NBER report determined to be the happiest metropolitan area, Richmond-Petersburg, VA, we also find some of the least satisfied law students, with a paltry 2.81 overall satisfaction rating. (Looking at you, University of Richmond Law.)

On the other hand, in the four of the five “unhappy cities” for which we have law student data, the overall satisfaction rating was actually above average, and in the cases of Milwaukee and St. Louis, comfortably so. Only New York, among the unhappy cities, has law student satisfaction scores that are (barely) below average.

If you haven’t already taken the ATL Insider Survey, we encourage you to do so here.


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