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Behind the Cellino & Barnes breakup: Barnes, the hard-charging Marine

Stephen E. Barnes, the multimillionaire lawyer, hard-nosed businessman and risk-taking adventurer who co-founded the Cellino & Barnes law firm, has survived some harrowing challenges and scares in the past.

When he was fighting in the Desert Storm war of 1991, a land mine blew up a military vehicle right next to Barnes' vehicle near the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The explosion killed two of Barnes' Marine Corps buddies.

In 2005, state court officials censured Barnes and suspended his law partner, Ross E. Cellino Jr., for six months after an investigation showed their Cellino & Barnes law firm improperly loaned thousands of dollars to clients in personal injury cases.

In 2007, Barnes became extremely ill while attempting to climb to the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal. He had to make his way back down the mountain after falling just short of his goal.

Now, the 58-year-old attorney faces a different kind of challenge, perhaps the toughest of his legal career. His longtime law partner, Cellino, has filed a legal action seeking to break up their partnership – a Buffalo-based law firm that began as a two-man operation and has grown into one of the largest personal injury firms in America.

While Barnes opposes the dissolution, legal experts say that if Cellino insists on a divorce, he will get one. Ultimately, the Cellino & Barnes partnership will be broken up.

Behind the Cellino & Barnes breakup: Cellino, the 'warm and fuzzy' partner

Those who know the two men well say Cellino's legal action has rocked Barnes' world, causing him intense stress and worry about his own future and that of the firm's clients and employees.

"He put his heart and soul into developing this law firm … it's very important to him," said Richard J. Barnes, who is Barnes' older brother and senior trial attorney at the firm. "This situation has created a lot of pressure for Steve ... It's discouraging to him."

"It's tough on Steve because he has an overwhelming concern for everyone who works here," said Robert J. Schreck, the law firm's managing attorney. "Of course, he's concerned about his own situation, but he also cares about every person on the staff. That includes the office managers, the attorneys, the secretaries, the paralegals and even the young man who runs errands for us. He's not just thinking about himself. There are a lot of other people affected."

Because of the massive, never-ending advertising campaign that has put their faces before Western New Yorkers every day for more than two decades, Barnes and Cellino are probably the two most famous attorneys in this region. But Barnes has maintained a public silence since Cellino filed his dissolution action two months ago.

Barnes declined to talk with The Buffalo News for this profile, telling a reporter he needs to devote all his time and energy to the law firm.

"I have 300 employees and 12,000 clients who are depending upon my leadership to protect them, so that is where my uninterrupted focus must be," Barnes said in an email to a reporter. "Ross and I have been business partners for 25 years. He is one of my oldest friends, and I believe that we share a mutual respect. I know that each of us believes that this will all end well for the people to whom we owe a duty – our clients and employees."

Lessons from war

His friends say Barnes takes his role as a leader in the law firm – and the responsibility that goes with it – to heart. They say his personality as a leader was forged by the seven years he spent with the 8th Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division of the Marine Corps Reserves, based in Rochester. He retired from the Marines with the rank of major in 1991, after combat duty in the Desert Storm war in the Middle East.

Losing two friends in that war, when their Humvee struck a land mine, affected Barnes deeply, his brother said.

"He told me the story once, and then never spoke about it again," Richard Barnes said. "But I know it affected him."

"Steve has taken everything he learned from his experience in the Marines and translated it into his work life," Schreck said. "He's a work-driven, success-driven guy … as hard a worker as any person I've ever met."

Sources: Barnes' refusal to hire Cellino's daughter sparked rift

But not everyone in the Buffalo legal community thinks highly of Barnes – or Cellino. Despite the firm's denials of any wrongdoing, many local attorneys – including nine who spoke with The News in the past week – said Cellino & Barnes has a reputation for "stealing" clients from other law firms. Those include clients with multimillion-dollar injury claims that made big money for Cellino & Barnes.

Most of the attorneys who spoke to The News did so on the condition that their names would not be published. Some said they have good friends in the Cellino & Barnes firm. Others said they didn’t want to antagonize Barnes or Cellino, whom they consider powerful figures in the legal community. One who did not insist on anonymity was Maryann Saccomando Freedman, former president of the state and Erie County bar associations.

"There is a lot of anger in the legal community toward both of them, because they do steal clients," said Freedman, an attorney for nearly 60 years. "Among lawyers of my generation, stealing clients is viewed as dishonorable."

Freedman does not know Barnes or Cellino well, but she said that Barnes is generally viewed as "the hard-nosed businessman of the two, the business guy." That view was reflected by most attorneys who spoke to The News.

According to court papers, one of the main reasons why Cellino wants to leave the firm is that he and Barnes have argued about "procedures for handling contacts from clients already represented by other counsel."

While not denying that their firm takes on clients who leave other attorneys, both Schreck and Richard Barnes vehemently denied that Cellino & Barnes does anything unethical or illegal to woo clients from other attorneys.

Ethics questions

The ethics of both Cellino and Barnes came under fire publicly in 2005. The state courts suspended Cellino for six months and issued a letter of censure against Barnes after an investigation into allegations that they improperly gave loans to personal injury clients, at a 15 percent interest rate. Cellino and Barnes, through their attorneys, denied any wrongdoing in the probe, saying none of their clients was hurt by the loans.

While Cellino was suspended, Barnes temporarily changed the name of the firm to "The Barnes Firm" and ran it without Cellino's input.

"Steve had to accept the determination of the court," Richard Barnes said. "Steve was upset for Ross and he made a commitment to Ross. He basically told Ross, 'We're partners, we'll ride this out, and you'll be right back in the saddle when the suspension is over.' "

But now, a decade later, Cellino wants out.

Cellino & Barnes appear headed for 'divorce'

Barnes' brother said he has watched him deal with many other challenges since the days when they grew up together in West Seneca and attended South Buffalo's Bishop Timon High School.

Their father, the late Jack Barnes, was a Navy veteran of World War II who worked as a salesman, selling parts for the aircraft industry. Their mother, Marian, was a pharmacist. She worked into her 80s and is still alive.

"We grew up in a middle-class family, in a small ranch home," Richard Barnes said. "Our parents taught us the values of responsibility and getting your work done."

He said his brother was always a "very competitive guy" who excelled in swimming and rowing on Timon's sports teams.

Barnes continues to be an extremely competitive athlete today, his bother said.

"He trains to make himself physically fit to the extreme. He will hike 50 miles from Buffalo to Ellicottville with a 60-pound weight strapped to his back. He's done it many times, and sometimes his girlfriend goes with him," Richard Barnes said.

Climbing Mount Everest

He added that his brother has also climbed some of the tallest mountains in the entire world.

Over the past 15 years, Barnes has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Mont Blanc in France, according to Schreck.

While climbing Mount Everest in 2007, Barnes had "almost reached the summit" – nearly 5 ½ miles high – when he developed altitude sickness, with symptoms of fatigue, headaches, dizziness and extreme nausea, his brother said.

"At Mount Everest, there's no helicopter or snowmobile that takes you back down the mountain when you get ill. You have to walk all the way back, no matter how sick you are," Richard Barnes said.

Barnes is also a pilot who got his pilot's license about 10 years ago and owns his own airplane.

A divorced father of two daughters and a son, Barnes lives in a Buffalo waterfront penthouse condominium that he bought for just over $1 million in 2009.

After high school, when Richard Barnes decided to become a lawyer, his younger brother followed his lead. They both graduated from the University at Buffalo Law School.

"Steve did very well in law school. He graduated near the top of his class, and he worked for three major law firms in Buffalo," Richard Barnes said.

But then, Barnes did something that shocked many people who knew him.

"One day, he announced to our family, 'I quit my job as a lawyer, and joined the Marines,' " Richard Barnes said. "He was just determined that this was something he really wanted to do."

Barnes graduated from the Marines' officer training academy and served as a Judge Advocate General lawyer for the Marines before getting sent to combat in 1991.

After Desert Storm, he returned to lawyering in Buffalo, concentrating all his efforts on personal injury law. He and Cellino became friends while working for Cellino's father, Ross Cellino Sr. Twenty-five years ago, they started their own firm, and decided to try something no other Buffalo attorney had ever done before – advertise like crazy on radio, television, billboards and in newspapers.

"They came up with a brilliant marketing strategy," said attorney Thomas H. Burton, who knows both Cellino and Barnes. "They changed the landscape for lawyers in Buffalo, and a lot of people were upset about it. They took a very aggressive approach, and there is still an element of jealousy toward them by some lawyers today."

"Steve doesn't really pal around with the legal community," Richard Barnes said. "The people who say they don’t like him, most of them just don’t know him."

The two law partners are so recognizable that, when Ross Cellino and Stephen Barnes go out in public, they are sometimes treated like rock stars. According to Richard Barnes and Schreck, they are often approached by people who want to take selfies with the two attorneys.

$2 billion in settlements

Today, their law firm is considered one of the largest personal injury firms in the nation. It has nine offices in Buffalo, Rochester, New York City, Long Island, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland. On its website, the firm says it has obtained more than $2 billion in settlements and verdicts for clients. With lawyers taking about one-third of most personal injury awards, that would translate to more than $666 million for the law firm and its attorneys.

Friends say Barnes is proud of the law firm's financial success and doesn’t want to meddle with a formula that worked for him and Cellino. But friends of Cellino say Cellino wants to strike out on his own, and establish his own operation involving some of his five sons and daughters who are attorneys.

Richard Barnes predicts his brother will survive this challenge, as he survived others.

While some lawyers consider Barnes to be somewhat aloof and obsessed with his work, his brother and his friend, Schreck, say he decided long ago to devote himself to the success of the law firm – not only for his own benefit, but to help people injured in car crashes and other calamities.

"Helping those people, taking on the insurance industry and its lawyers, that means a lot to Steve," Schreck said.

Richard Barnes recalled a ceremony at UB Law School in May 2011, when his brother and Cellino were honored for making a $1 million donation to their alma mater. A big conference room in the law school was named for the two attorneys.

A YouTube video from that ceremony shows Cellino getting up and giving a folksy, humorous speech about his parents, recalling his first job, making bean bags with his mother and selling them at school for a nickel.

A deadly serious Stephen Barnes then stood up, thanked the law school, and spoke angrily for nine minutes about proposed state and federal laws that would make it more difficult for injury victims – and their attorneys – to collect big damage awards in court.

"That's a prime example of my brother's personality," said Richard Barnes. "He's passionate and serious about his work, and on that day, he felt it was important to get that message out. He wasn’t there to yuck it up with the law school people."

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