Ross Cellino, left, and Steve Barnes.
STEVE 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 the pandemic, he worked DWI and real-estate cases on his own his first year out in the early ’80s—80 hours a week for $9,000 a year. He became intrigued by the ads some attorneys were placing in the local Yellow Pages. Full-page displays, the back cover for about $100,000. He took a few of the lawyers behind the ads out to lunch, but when he started asking questions, they tried to steer their young competitor away, downplaying the approach. No, they told him, it’s not really worth it. Don’t bother.
The brush-off only encouraged him. Cellino bought a business card- size ad. Then a half-page and more. Nothing too snazzy. If the ads brought in just one $300,000 case, he reasoned, that’s $100,000 in attorney’s fees. “It encouraged me to become more aggressive,” he told me. His competitors, he said, had lied. Ads worked.
Eventually, Cellino started working with his father. When it came time for his father to retire in the early ’90s, Cellino and his father’s partners were eager to find some young blood. A local lawyer named Richard Barnes reached out with a suggestion: How about his younger brother, Steve?
Steve Barnes was the kind of guy who finished law school then signed up for the Marines. He served as a military lawyer and briefly saw action during the Gulf War in a tank battalion in Kuwait. Barnes says his decision to enlist was a primal compulsion. “Almost analogous to a woman’s desire to give birth,” he says. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons that man has been involved in so many wars over so many millennia, because of this innate desire on the part of men to fight each other and kind of have that experience in their lives.” Rich Barnes once told the Buffalo News that his brother can be a driven guy: “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.”
Steve was working at a large corporate-defense office when the Cellino firm approached him about joining forces. It was a tiny operation, but it wasn’t just a job, it was a shot at a share of the pot: a chance for something big. Cellino remembers Barnes called asking if the firm had made a decision the day after their initial conversation. Cellino loved the raw aggression. “This has got to be the right guy,” Cellino says he thought. “I was like that too. I wanted to grow.”
Though Cellino would later cultivate an image as a family man, his early hunger was palpable. Michael Beebe, a former Buffalo News reporter, remembers meeting Cellino right when he was taking over from his father. “He got a list of all the people that owed his father and his father’s firm money and went after them,” Beebe says. “I had a case involving a poor guy over on the East Side of Buffalo that claimed this lawyer was after him to pay his past rent and past water bills and things like that. So I met with Ross very briefly, and he says, ‘Look, they owe my father money. I’m here, and I’m going to get the money back.’ He was just matter-of-fact. It didn’t matter how poor this guy was.”
Barnes signed on. Eventually, the Old Guard left. As Cellino & Barnes, the pair made a critical decision: From then on, it would be all injury law, all the time. That meant taking cases on contingency— the client paid no money up front, and the attorneys kept one-third of whatever was won, minus costs. But injury clients aren’t usually repeat customers (unless they’re really unlucky or terrible drivers). So to grow, the firm needed a lot of cases.
EARLY ON, Cellino and Barnes heard about a lawyer in New Orleans, Morris Bart, who was beginning to dominate the local airwaves. They flew down to see him. His advice was simple and profound: If you want to succeed, find out how much your biggest competitor is spending on ads and double it.
Bart, whose practice now spends upwards of $25 million a year on advertising, stands by that wisdom. “It was pretty easy in hindsight,” he says. “You cobble together money, make the ads, and the phone rings.” But when Bart started, it was revolutionary. Traditionally, the practice of law had had an aura of public service; that lawyers didn’t advertise was an ethical cornerstone of the profession. Then, in the ’60s and ’70s, a series of changes meant to give more people access to the legal process—the right to counsel for poor defendants, expanding use of powerful “class actions” to bring big lawsuits, and a rising consumer-focused mindset in government—created an environment that opened the door to legal advertising. In 1977, the Supreme Court heard the case of a “legal clinic,” a law practice that specializes in low-cost, routine legal help. The clinic’s lawyers wanted to advertise their rates so the average Joe could make a wise decision. The court agreed, on First Amendment grounds, and the advertising restrictions on lawyers came crashing down. “No one thought attorney advertising would be used by personal-injury lawyers,” says Stanford Law School professor Nora Engstrom, “including the Supreme Court.”
But by the ’90s, thanks to pioneers like Bart, legal advertising had become an obvious path for hustling lawyers, and Cellino and Barnes were all in. Following Bart’s advice, they plowed much of their profits from big settlements back into advertising.
In 1997, five years after Barnes was hired, their practice had just three lawyers. Then they decided to bring on a nonlawyer with an M.B.A., Daryl Ciambella, who was charged with writing a business plan and developing some television commercials.
“That showed the balls they had,” says Mark Cantor, a local attorney who worked with Rich Barnes. He recalls hearing that the firm had taken the entirety of its fee for a $3 million settlement and used it to make ads. “At that time, when lawyers settled cases for lots of money, you take the money. They didn’t take one penny of it. That was incredible to have that much faith in advertising.”
Cantor wasn’t the only Buffalo lawyer to take notice. Other local attorneys griped that their clients were being lured away by Cellino & Barnes’s aggressive advertising. “That’s what sticks in the craw of most lawyers in western New York,” griped one personal-injury attorney. “They are financially successful not because of the good job done on previous cases but because of advertising on cases.”
The firm’s draw only expanded after the partners commissioned their jingle: grand but gentle, enthusiastic but sweet. Undeniably catchy, despite having no rhymes and nothing all that distinctive about it, aside from how relentlessly it has appeared on television and radio. “Cellino & Barnes. The Injury Attorneys,” and then the phone number. (In later renditions, they dropped the “the.”) The jingle has sparked a singing challenge among Broadway casts and a spoof on Saturday Night Live. When the spread of covid-19 led to public-health warnings to wash your hands for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, the Cellino & Barnes Twitter account suggested a much more enjoyable tune. When Chrissy Teigen tweeted her devastation at the news of Cellino & Barnes’s breakup, the reason was clear: “The song sucks now. We must reunite them.”
Barnes is a bit less romantic about it. “Jingles work,” he says. “Is there a great magic to it? I don’t know. I think there’s been more said about our jingle because lawyers weren’t doing jingles and now lawyers do jingles.”
EVEN WITH THE ADS, the firm probably never would have reached the heights it did without one person: a tool-and-die-maker named Mark Rappold.
Rappold doesn’t trust easily. He had seen some of the firm’s commercials on TV. He’d seen the billboards, too. But he wasn’t thinking about any of that when, in 1998, he and his wife heard their son David had been horribly injured in a high-speed car crash. David had just finished his first year of law school. His friend was driving, hustling up the New York State Thruway, with David in the passenger seat; the friend switched lanes, cutting off the car behind him. Incensed, the guy in the other car flashed his lights and tailed closely. The trailing car then raced ahead in the other lane, and the friend sped up, keeping pace behind. The police would call it “road tag.” At 85 miles an hour, the other car sliced back in front, then hit the brakes. The friend swerved, lost control, and spun into the median. The car slammed into a tree.
David had a massive brain injury. “He is for the most part paralyzed on the left side of his body,” an appeals court wrote in 2001. “He cannot feed or groom himself, walk, or use a motorized wheelchair because of his cognitive and/or physical limitations. He can speak only a few words, and he communicates by blinking his eyes, making hand gestures, and shaking his head.”
Rappold didn’t know what was in store for David or the rest of his family. But he knew he needed a lawyer immediately. Without justice for his son, there would be nothing to pay for the towering medical and rehabilitation bills that awaited him. Rappold was unimpressed with the first lawyer he met with, but a neighbor mentioned the guy from the ads, a nice guy he had gone to school with: Ross Cellino.
Rappold drove to see Cellino, unannounced, on a Sunday afternoon. Cellino was painting his house. His wife was gardening. “He says, ‘Can I help you?’ ” recalls Rappold. “I go, ‘Yes, I’m looking for a lawyer because my son was in a tragic car accident.’ Well, he dropped everything he was doing to talk to me. I mean, he didn’t even think twice.”
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September 14 - 27, 2020