Malek Khawam sat down with Ernest Mansour to discuss their Lebanese heritage, what it was like growing up as Arab Americans, and how the practice of law has transformed throughout the years.
Discussing their favorite middle eastern restaurants, Mansour boasts that’s Nate’s Deli on W. 25th is the best Lebanese restaurant in town! Nate’s kibbeh nayeh (a quintessential Lebanese dish made with ground raw lamb, spices, and bulgur) is as close to his mother and father’s as he’s ever had.
Mansour was the younger of two children of Lebanese immigrants who came to the Cleveland/Akron area as teenagers. Ernie speaks fondly of his parents. “They were very modern in their thinking. At that time, it wasn’t the norm for women to pursue higher education, but they insisted my sister go to college” recalled Mansour. Often asked why he decided to become a lawyer, Ernie said that growing up, it was engrained in him that he was either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. At the time, doctors still made house calls and going to someone’s bedside in the middle of the night didn’t appeal to him. Mansour recalls “my vision of a lawyer was sitting behind a desk, putting my feet up, and answering the phone and so I decided to become a lawyer.” Khawam reflects on a similar experience when he was essentially given the option of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. He always thought he would follow in his mother’s footsteps as a doctor until one day, he saw blood. Feeling woozy, he decided that pursing a legal career would be the better path for him.
Many immigrant parents put a lot of pressure on their children to become either doctors or lawyers. Malek poses the question to Ernie of where he thinks that stems from. “From their background.” Recalling his father working 15-16 hour days for $1 and not wanting to have his children have to do the same, he eventually got together enough money to buy a restaurant and bar on Cleveland’s east side at 55th and Cedar. “That’s how he raised us, working all of those hours. If you didn’t work at the bar, the booze would walk out of the door.”
Mansour reflected on his upbringing and how his experience with immigrant parents made an impression on his practice as an attorney with a story from his time in college. During his second year of undergrad in Loretta, PA, Ernie lived in a fraternity house with a cook whose kitchen skills weren’t exactly exemplary. One Sunday, there were five of them sitting around discussing how awful the food was when Ernie picked up the phone to call his mother and tell her that he and his housemates were longing for a good home cooked meal. His mother told Ernie to bring the boys home, which he knew she would. They hopped in the car and made the five hour drive to Cleveland and his parents spent the entire day cooking. Upon walking into the house, one of Ernie’s fraternity brothers inquired about a specific pot boiling on the stove and asked what was in it. Disregarding the advice to ignore it, curiosity got the better of him and he opened the lid and immediately dropped it after discovering a cow’s head cooking a tongue, which is a staple in a Lebanese home. Ernie’s parents took great pride in their cooking. That day, they sat down together and ate until they no longer could, got back in the car, and drove the five hours back to school. “You want to know how I grew up? I had no compunctions about calling my parents and asking them for help with something because I knew they would never say no.”
Stating the importance of having that type of community behind you, Malek remarks that one of the things he loves about working at Mansour Gavin is that people support one another. Further remarking on the importance of family, Ernie states he has never done anything to embarrass the Mansour name. After practicing law for 65 years, he believes in not just protecting the reputation of himself personally, but that of the firm.
Mansour often thinks about his longtime friend and business partner, Mike Gavin. Reflecting on the early days of the firm, Ernie recalls how everybody loved Mike. They would walk down the street together and couldn’t go more than a few blocks without somebody stopping to talk to Mike. “We created a law firm, the two of us even though we were so different. We went from graduating law school to playing gin rummy in the office because we didn’t have any clients, but we persevered because both of us knew what we wanted and had enough belief in ourselves to do it.” One of their first jobs was from another lawyer working on a divorce where the wife was suspected of cheating and wanted Mansour and Gavin to follow her. Thinking it would be an easy assignment, they sat outside of her house, followed her to a parking lot, and watched her go into a grocery store. After about an hour of watching the car, they started to think something was wrong. Upon going into the store, they discovered their cover had been blown and she had slipped out the back of the store. Joking that they couldn’t even follow her, they weren’t exactly sure how they were going to charge the lawyer that hired them. “Those were stories that I’m not sure anybody is able to replicate today. That’s how we started the law firm. What was fortunate is that no one could ask for a better partner than I had. I miss him to this day. He was a wonderful person.”
There is a long list of people grateful that Mansour decided to pursue law instead of medicine (or private investigative work for that matter). He’s built a longstanding law firm built on trust and friendship, where clients and employees feel like family. With the work ethic his parents instilled in him, Mansour still comes into the office almost every day even though he’s no longer practicing law. There is no doubt that the legacy Ernie Mansour created is far reaching and endures in the conduct of past and present attorneys of Mansour Gavin. His story demonstrates a valuable principle—the success and reputation of one is dependent on the success and reputation of all. Hard work coupled with a support system and an unwavering vision were ultimately the main ingredients in this success story. Sometimes a cow tongue presents itself in the recipe of life. Sometimes the recipe calls for camouflaging in a grocery parking lot for an hour while the mark sneaks out the back door. Ernie’s stories, like the experiences that each of us add to the metaphorical pot, are the spice of life. Mansour Gavin takes great pride in the product that it serves and makes no secret about what it takes to maintain a successful practice. Ernie Mansour continues to warm the pot, turning the lights of the firm on every morning.