Home U.S. Stephen Barnes, Partner in Law Firm With Cellino, Dies at 61

Stephen Barnes, Partner in Law Firm With Cellino, Dies at 61

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“Deeper Understanding. Better Solutions,” one venerable law firm promises. “A Broader Perspective,” another pledges. “Character Comes Through,” still another avows.

In less than a generation, though, Ross M. Cellino Jr. and Stephen E. Barnes transformed their two-partner outpost in Buffalo into perhaps the most famous personal injury law firm in America not by invoking lofty slogans but by blitzing the airwaves with visceral advertising — “Injury? Head-on? T-bone? Rear-end?” — an indelible callback phone number and, as one publication described it, an “earworm” of a jingle.

All of it together made the two lawyers’ names and faces (Mr. Barnes was the bald one) familiar to almost anyone in New York and California who for years heard Cellino & Barnes radio spots, watched their television commercials or encountered their billboards.

It didn’t last, however. In 2017, continuing grumbling between the partners about nepotism and mismanagement finally boiled over bitterly in court.

Mr. Cellino sued to dissolve their professional corporation and open his own family firm. Mr. Barnes countersued, charging trademark infringement. The divorce was finalized this summer, with each man regrouping with relatives and loyal employees in his own firm.

Last Friday, Mr. Barnes was piloting his TBM 700 turboprop six-seater plane from Manchester, N.H., back to Buffalo for his mother’s birthday party when the aircraft crashed near Pembroke, about 20 miles east of Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Mr. Barnes, 61, was killed.

So was his only passenger, his niece Elizabeth D. Barnes, 32, who, like her father, Richard Barnes, was also a lawyer in the firm. Federal officials were investigating the cause of the crash.

In a statement afterward, Mr. Cellino called Mr. Barnes “a fearless advocate for his clients.”

“His passing is a significant loss for the legal community,” he said.

Before their falling out, the two had complemented each other. Steve Barnes, two years younger than his partner, was a former Marine officer who could eviscerate a hostile witness in the courtroom and struggled to smile through the firm’s marketing campaigns. In their ads, the more laid-back Mr. Cellino wore the easy smile.

The two men founded their firm in 1994 and commissioned an advertising slogan from a local jingle writer for $500: “Cellino and Barnes. Injury attorneys. 800-888-8888 — Don’t wait. Call eight!”

Having bought that easy-to-remember telephone number for $1.7 million, the lawyers over time pumped more than $150 million into radio and television advertising, billboards and other promotions, taking advantage of successful court challenges in the 1970s, on free speech grounds, against rules that had barred advertising by lawyers.

The Cellino & Barnes jingle was so ubiquitous that it was spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” and even reinterpreted by Broadway stars and others in an internet “Cellino & Barnes Challenge.”

Mr. Barnes said in his 2017 lawsuit that the firm had generated profits of more than $165 million from settling cases for its clients for $1.5 billion. (The lawyers usually got about one-third of the settlements.) By then, he said, the firm’s 250 lawyers in New York State and in California were handling as many as 10,000 cases a year.

Credit…The Barnes Firm

Stephen Edward Barnes was born in Buffalo on Nov. 5, 1958, to Jack and Marian (Basty) Barnes. His mother was a pharmacist; his father sold aircraft parts. He grew up in suburban West Seneca, N.Y.

Mr. Barnes enlisted in the Marines after graduating from the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, and its law school, in 1983. He served as a military lawyer and in a tank battalion in Kuwait in 1991 when an American-led coalition ousted invading Iraqi troops in Operation Desert Storm. A vehicle next to his was destroyed by a land mine, killing two fellow Marines. He retired that year as a major.

His marriage to Ruth Border ended in divorce. He is survived by his mother; his partner, Ellen Sturm, who is also a lawyer at the firm; his daughters, Rachael and Julia; his son, Josiah; and his brother, Richard.

Mr. Barnes’s budding legal career got a lift when he was hired by Ross Cellino’s father’s law firm, having been recommended by his brother, Richard.

The firm was looking for a driven young lawyer, and Mr. Barnes fit the bill, said Mr. Cellino who had also worked for his father; after leaving the Marines, Mr. Barnes had climbed Mount Everest, turning back only after becoming ill just before reaching the summit. A fitness buff, he would hike 50 miles with a 60-pound weight strapped to his back.

“He trains to make himself physically fit to the extreme,” Richard Barnes once told The Buffalo News.

When Mr. Barnes and Ross Jr. decided to open their own firm, they chose to concentrate exclusively on personal injury cases, in which they would be compensated only when they won. Because accident victims were unlikely to be repeat clients, the firm depended on attracting a vast pool of potential plaintiffs.

Their advertising tune was written by Ken Kaufman, a Buffalo-based jingle writer. Mr. Barnes suggested the lyrics.

“They’re the injury attorneys — not just some of the injury attorneys,” Mr. Kaufman said in an interview with Vox in 2019. “It’s a pre-emptive slogan, which was brilliant.”

It was first sung by two local people, Ron Lombardo and Sharon Jones.

In 2005, an appellate court censured Mr. Barnes and suspended Mr. Cellino for six months after an investigation found, among other things, that the firm had been lending clients money against potential settlements through a mortgage company it owned, and that it had hired outside lawyers to pursue cases for clients who were willing to settle.

When Mr. Cellino returned from his suspension, relations between the two partners had soured, even though they were earning millions of dollars annually.

From 2017 to last June, the two men bombarded each other with court filings that doomed the jingle — although JD Journal, an online magazine for the legal community, noted that it would very likely to live on. The Journal called it “an annoying earworm that’ll never dig out of your brain.”

Some of the settlement between the former partners remained confidential, but it appears that for 18 months beginning on Oct. 10, potential clients who call the 800-888-8888 hotline will be connected to the new firm Cellino Law one week, and The Barnes Firm the next.

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