New York Magazine


TEVE BARNES WAS FURIOUS. Over the past 25 years, he had helped turn a small-time Buffalo personal-injury law firm into a New York institution, one with eye-popping profits and an empire of advertisements so widespread you wondered if everyone who got into an accident in the state would end up as its client. But now everything he’d built was at risk of falling apart. How could anyone, especially his own partner, Ross Cellino, want to turn off the rivers of green that flowed into their coffers? It was April 2017, and Barnes’s emails boiled with frustration, each one a verbal roundhouse to the partner yoked to him by an ampersand and thousands of TV, radio, and billboard spots.

“We have made 10+ each for the last few years, with nothing but blue sky in the future. What part of THAT are you unhappy with?” Barnes wrote his partner. (That “10+”: That’s millions of dollars, each.) “You know any other lawyers who are making 10 a year? I don’t.”

Not likely. Not in Buffalo, for sure. And almost nowhere else in the vast legal netherworld of personal-injury firms, where decorum gives way to inescapable billboards, catchy jingles, and blunt commercials that trumpet a better-than-any-rival’s ability to get you money. That’s where Cellino & Barnes presided: Barnes, the former Marine with the gravelly voice and startling intensity, and Cellino, the cuddly-looking Everyman with nerdy glasses. TV. Radio. Bus stops. Subway entrances. Everyone knew Cellino & Barnes—most people even knew that Barnes was the bald one with the strained smile, staring at the camera for just a bit too long, and that Cellino was, well, not the bald one.

And the jingle. Good God, the jingle. Even if you would never dream of trusting your legal representation to a commercial, it set up camp in your brain and never left. Eight hundred, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight. In New York City, Cellino & Barnes was as familiar as yellow cabs, halal carts, or a subway “Showtime!”

Yet largely out of sight of their legions of potential clients, the two men had been sparring for years about the need for autonomy and decision-making power, about family, about the quest to expand, and about respect. When their feud was made public later that spring, after Cellino filed a petition to dissolve the firm, it exposed Cellino & Barnes’s tightly controlled innards and drew countless rubberneckers. There would be lawsuits, appeals, affidavits—so many affidavits—and, of course, billboards (and a lawsuit involving billboards). There were stories in the tabloids about how Cellino accused Barnes of being “dictatorial,” about how Cellino said the staff should follow him, the first name in the duo, because “no one ever calls their motorcycle a Davidson.” Colleagues would testify. So would life partners, assistants, and accountants.

The fight revealed more than just financial dirty laundry and wounded feelings. It captured the birth and boom of what has become one of the most caricatured areas of the law—a pop-culture staple that often earns its reputation as ambulance chasing but also delivers on its promise as one of the most direct ways to bring justice, and fair compensation, to the least powerful members of society. It is a world that isn’t going away anytime soon, even if the men who elevated the New York car-crash lawsuit to a kind of high art have themselves joined the ranks of the injured.

THE TWO MEN CAME TOGETHER by chance. Cellino’s father, Ross Sr., had hung out a shingle back in the more staid legal world of 1950s Buffalo. He was the son of a poor farmer and desperate to climb to stability. When he died last year, his memorial Mass program included a bullet-point list of jobs he’d held as he scrapped: box-factory laborer, bowling-alley pin sticker, waiter, income-tax preparer, and worker “at Bethlehem Steel on the big cold saw, this caused his partial hearing loss from the high pitch noise.”

The steel job was at night to help finance law school during the day. The firm he launched with a local lawyer took anything that came in the door: real estate, criminal cases, trusts, some personal injury. Whatever paid the bills for Cellino Sr.’s growing brood of nine children.

When Cellino Jr. (brawnier than you might expect, ruddy, an eventual father of six) graduated from law school, Buffalo wasn’t exactly a golden land of opportunity. As he told me over his dining-room table before

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