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Cellino & Barnes breakup nears completion

After battling for almost three years inside and outside the courtroom, Ross M. Cellino Jr. and Stephen Barnes negotiated an agreement late Friday night that will divide the Cellino & Barnes law firm into two separate law firms.

The agreement was confirmed by attorneys on both sides on Saturday, and Cellino’s attorney, Terrence M. Connors, said he is hopeful the breakup will be completed in a matter of weeks.

Barnes will call his firm the Barnes Firm, while Cellino’s will be called Cellino Law. Commercials featuring the two men together should stop airing “very soon,” Connors told The Buffalo News.

“For Ross Cellino, this is a watershed moment in his legal career,” Connors said late Saturday afternoon. “The attorneys reached an agreement in principle Friday night, and those principles are being reduced to writing as we speak.”

Barnes could not immediately be reached on Saturday, but long-time Cellino & Barnes managing attorney Robert J. Schreck confirmed that an agreement has been reached, although he declined to discuss details.

“I will be continuing my work with Steve as the managing attorney of the Barnes Firm,” Schreck said. “This is welcome news for all the attorneys and other employees of Cellino & Barnes. We currently have about 60 attorneys and 250 total employees. This is a big relief for all of them.”

Connors said he expects that a signed agreement between his client and Barnes will be presented early this week, hopefully on Monday, to State Supreme Court Judge Deborah Chimes, who since 2017 has presided over a stormy dispute that began in 2017, when Cellino filed court papers seeking to break up the megamillion-dollar law firm.

Although both Connors and Schreck were reluctant to discuss details, The News learned from reliable sources that the firm’s famous 888-8888 telephone hotline will be “put in mothballs” for 18 months. It will be decided later whether the hotline number will be used by one of the new firms, sold to another firm or continue to be mothballed.

In the meantime, each of the two new firms will establish its own new phone number.

Lawyers now working for Cellino & Barnes will ultimately decide whether they want to work for either of the new firms, or to go elsewhere, The News learned.

Details have yet to be announced on how Cellino and Barnes will split up the firm’s current caseload, which includes more than 13,000 personal injury cases, potentially worth billions of dollars.

Cellino & Barnes began as a two-man operation about 25 years ago, and through a very active advertising campaign, turned into one of the most financially successful firm in the entire nation. Cellino and Barnes, according to court papers, each earn more than $1 million a month from the firm’s cases.

But in May 2017, Cellino shocked the Buffalo legal community when he filed a lawsuit seeking to break up the firm. Cellino said he and Barnes had numerous disagreements over hiring policies, marketing and other issues.

Barnes fought the breakup effort for well over two years but finally agreed in January that the firm would be broken up into two firms. Cellino sent an email at 11:07 a.m. on Saturday telling employees that an agreement between him and Barnes had been finalized.

The dispute has been “very stressful” for lawyers and employees, but “we have continued to serve our clients well, without any interruption,” Schreck said.



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