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Big Buffalo law firm wants court dispute with six partners kept secret

The largest law firm headquartered in Buffalo has gone to court in a dispute with six of its partners, but both sides are working to keep details out of public view.

Goldberg Segalla, which has offices from Chicago to Miami, says in court papers that the six partners, all based in New York State, violated the firm's partnership agreement. The papers, filed just days ago, do not specify how the six might have breached the pact.

The firm says it intends to resolve the dispute through arbitration -- as the partnership agreement requires. But it wants a State Supreme Court judge in Erie County to seal future court papers that could reveal what's going on.

At the same time, the six partners, most of whom work downstate, intend to file their own petition against Goldberg Segalla. A lawyer they hired issued a statement indicating she will file a petition after a judge seals records in the matter.

"Previously, the six partners wanted to reach an amicable resolution with the firm," the statement said.

In trying to tamp down public disclosures, Goldberg Segalla and the partners seek to avoid the sort of spectacle that can occur when a law firm's secrets splash  into public view.

When Ross M. Cellino sued  to dissolve the high-profile personal-injury law firm he formed with Stephen E. Barnes, he exposed the bitterness between the two. He also rocked a firm with hundreds of employees, 10,000 clients and a household name.

"There are so many reasons why law firms don't want these fights made public," said William F. Savino, a Buffalo lawyer who has been hired for business break-ups and corporate divorces but said he knows nothing about the dispute at Goldberg Segalla.

Savino said law firms don't like the public to see how much the lawyers earn, the income discrepancy between partners, and a firm's inner workings. Those details can lead long-term clients to agitate for lower fees and stoke resentment within the firm's own ranks, he said.

"These are just some of the factors that would make me loath to open up the kimono in court," he said.

Still, there are specific rules judges must follow when sealing court documents, he said.

"The judge should not do this just because the parties want it," Savino said. "The judge has to consider the interests of the public."

Court documents were initially kept secret in the Cellino and Barnes case, too. But State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes eventually unsealed them. Ruling on a request by The Buffalo News, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, Chimes agreed that Cellino's complaint could be made public because the firm had been given time to tell the staff and clients where the situation stands.

Some of the most recently filed papers in the case indicate the public feud has not hurt business: Barnes said he and Cellino will each make $12 million this year, or an average of $1 million a month.

Another lawyer contacted by The News, who asked not to be identified because of friendships with some Goldberg Segalla lawyers, said a dispute among partners at a law firm of its size is not unusual. Goldberg Segalla has hundreds of lawyers across 18 U.S. offices, according to its website. Disputes can arise over territory, which offices handle certain clients and the control one office exerts over others, he said.

With more than 300 lawyers in its network, Goldberg Segalla is the largest of the  firms headquartered in Buffalo, Savino said. As for what the dispute could be about, he said a law firm typically would sue its partners if it believes they are going to break away and open their own shop, which would then compete for business or take clients. A law firm would not need to sue partners involved in misconduct like, say, harassment, he said. Those partners could be expelled, he explained.

Most of the six partners work in Goldberg Segalla's downstate offices. Dennis J. Brady and Frank J. Ciano work in the New York City office, William G. Kelly works in White Plains and Paul S. Devine works in Garden City, on Long Island. But John J. Jablonski works in the Buffalo office. Daniel W. Gerber, who has an Erie County address, works from offices in Buffalo and New York City.

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