“In my very first case, the court appointed me to represent a parking attendant charged with stealing the cars he was parking,” Mr. Lerner wrote in ForbesLife magazine in 2013. “I somehow got his sentence reduced from two years to six months. My client promptly left town without paying me. I figured there had to be a more rewarding way to make a living, so I decided to get into real estate full time.”
“I didn’t have any money,” he recalled, noting that he was 25 at the time. His wife was working as a secretary at the State Department, and so he asked her for financial help. “She loaned me $250,” he said. “That’s how I got started.”
Mr. Lerner had started selling homes on weekends when he was in law school, he told Washingtonian magazine in 2007. As he began building a real estate empire, “I took off for Jewish holidays and a Redskins game or two. It was nothing to do 18-hour days.” (The Washington Redskins of the N.F.L. are now the Washington Commanders.)
Mr. Lerner’s company, Lerner, became one of the largest private developers in the Washington metropolitan area, building malls, office buildings, hotels, private homes and apartment buildings. He and his family have an estimated net worth of $6.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Mr. Lerner’s first shopping center, the open-air Wheaton Plaza (now Westfield Wheaton) in suburban Maryland, was dedicated in 1960.
He opened Tysons Corner Center, a national model for enclosed, climate-controlled malls, in the late 1960s and another mall, the Galleria at Tysons II, outside Washington in Fairfax County, Va., in the late 1980s.
As his wealth grew, Mr. Lerner sought without success to buy pro sports teams, including the American League’s Baltimore Orioles and the N.F.L.’s Washington Football Team (formerly the Redskins). Eventually he purchased the Nationals for a payment of $450 million to Major League Baseball, which had taken over the National League’s failing Montreal team in February 2002 and moved it to Washington three years later.