Ross M. Cellino Jr. and Stephen Barnes moved a big step closer on Wednesday to breaking up their very profitable law firm.
Barnes will call his firm the Barnes Firm, while Cellino is expected to start his own firm, called Cellino Law.
But many issues about the breakup are yet to be worked out, including who gets to use the 888-8888 phone number, how the two men will split up future fees from more than 12,000 cases, and which of the law firm’s current attorneys will go with Cellino, and which will go with Barnes.
An attorney for Cellino, and one for Barnes filed a stipulated order of dissolution on Wednesday with State Supreme Court Judge Deborah A. Chimes. The judge has not yet signed the order, but attorneys on both sides are hopeful that she will.
The stipulated order indicates that both sides have agreed to break up the law firm, under the provisions of state business corporation law.
In the weeks and possibly months ahead, Judge Chimes – possibly aided by a court-appointed receiver – will decide all the issues of the breakup that Cellino and Barnes cannot work out among themselves.
While the timetable for the split has not been announced yet, Cellino’s attorney, Terrence M. Connors, said Cellino is anxious to start his own operation as soon as possible.
“This is certainly a significant milestone for Ross. He’s excited to begin the next chapter of his professional career, and he is optimistic that the judge will approve the stipulated order,” Connors told The Buffalo News Wednesday.
Which of the two attorneys will get the 888-8888 phone number – which itself is reportedly worth millions of dollars – and how will Cellino and Barnes split up the thousands of pending cases the firm is currently handling?
“Issues that are not resolved between the two parties will be addressed by the court,” Connors said. “The judge will decide these issues, either by herself or through a receiver.”
Barnes said he could not discuss details of the breakup, but told The News that several offices the Barnes Firm is already running in California are “booming and continue to grow.”
While the law firm is being dismantled, all cases currently handled by the Cellino & Barnes firm will be worked on “diligently” by the firm’s attorneys, said Robert J. Schreck, managing attorney for Cellino & Barnes.
“There has been no interruption in service to our clients, and there will be no interruptions in service as this matter proceeds,” Schreck said.
According to court papers, attorneys on both sides will meet with Chimes Jan. 28, and again on Feb. 25, to work on a timetable for the total dissolution of the law firm and how to split up its assets.
Attorneys familiar with the law firm said those assets include pending cases that could eventually be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees.
Cellino and Barnes have been together for more than 25 years. Their tiny Buffalo law firm grew into a financial juggernaut with the help of saturation advertising on television, radio, newspaper pages, billboards and other media.
Since 2017, Cellino has been trying to break off on his own. Barnes initially fought Cellino’s efforts, saying they would harm clients and employees.
But in recent months, Barnes has decided to go along with the dissolution.
According to court papers, the two men each make more than $1 million a month from the operations of Cellino & Barnes.