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Following the suspension of one of its two principal attorneys, the personal injury firm whose name has become synonymous with the proliferation of attorney advertising in upstate New York must pull all of its radio and television ads and remove all of its approximately 150 billboards, at least temporarily. An Appellate Division, 4th Department panel suspended one of Cellino & Barnes’ two named partners and censured the other for “advancing financial assistance to clients that was unrelated to the expenses of litigation,” among other things. Ross M. Cellino may apply for reinstatement in six months. Stephen E. Barnes, who had already received one letter of caution for inappropriate behavior, was not disciplined other than the censure. With 40 attorneys and offices in Buffalo, Amherst and Rochester, Cellino & Barnes bills itself as the largest personal injury firm in western New York. Cellino’s suspension may not have an immediate effect on the firm’s practice, but it will have one on the highways and airwaves of western New York. “An attorney who is suspended cannot hold himself out as a lawyer,” a court official from the 4th Department said Monday. “They can’t advertise as Cellino & Barnes. The firm’s name is going to have to be changed. Their billboards are going to have to come down.” The 4th Department’s Grievance Committee charged Cellino and Barnes with numerous violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility. A referee then submitted a report to the appellate panel, finding the two had committed at least seven violations of the code. The panel sustained three of the charges in Matter of Cellino. ARRANGING LOANS The allegations centered largely on the firm’s practice of providing or arranging loans for its clients pending resolution of their lawsuits. The unanimous five-judge panel found that Cellino and Barnes advanced financial assistance to clients beyond the expenses of litigation and, when they subsequently became aware that such actions violated the disciplinary rules, “arranged for the establishment of, funded and controlled [a] company owned by respondent Cellino’s cousin and that they did so in order to continue loaning money to clients.” The panel also ruled that Cellino filed a retainer statement with the Office of Court Administration that “did not accurately reflect the parties’ agreement regarding compensation.” Cellino had contended that he had inadvertently signed a preprinted retainer statement. Justices Henry J. Scudder, Jerome C. Gorski, Nancy E. Smith, Elizabeth W. Pine and Leo F. Hayes sat on the panel. The faces of Cellino and Barnes grace a reported 150 billboards across upstate New York. The attorneys’ names and likenesses frame their phone number and the one-word question “Injured?” The ads have been the subject of public lampooning and attorney ire. In 1997, for example, the radio station WEDG mocked the ubiquitous signs by creating an identical billboard of its own, featuring the station’s morning show DJs. IMPACT ON PROFESSION Cellino and Barnes “began this whole business of advertising,” said former Buffalo district attorney Edward C. Cosgrove, a vocal opponent of the proliferation of attorney advertising who has volunteered for the task force on advertising announced by the new president of the New York State Bar Association, A. Vincent Buzard. Their ads represent “a deterioration of our profession,” Cosgrove said. “The integral part of our democracy depends upon the confidence that the general public has in all branches of our government.” Now, Cellino & Barnes’ signs soon will come down, according to the court official. “They understand they have to be prompt,” he said. “I’m sure they’ve contacted all the billboard companies, and likewise with their television advertising.” Joel Daniels and Richard T. Sullivan, who represent Cellino and Barnes, could not be reached for comment. For Cosgrove and others who rue the advertising boom that followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 decision Bates v. Arizona, 433 US 350, which recognized a First Amendment right of attorneys to advertise, the ads cannot come down quickly enough. But other ads will quickly fill their place, according to Cosgrove. “Now that this has happened to Cellino & Barnes, we’re going to have advertising pitches that start off, ‘We’re the trustworthy lawyers,’” he bemoaned.

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