Even by his own extremely high standards, Alex Mihai was an early success. Before his thirty-fifth birthday, he had already made partner at the prestigious California firm Lynberg & Watkins. He had argued high-profile cases alongside his mentor Shel Harrell, winning seven cases on behalf of law enforcement officers. Most rising lawyers would have focused on growing the firm’s client base and continuing on the path to senior partner. Instead, Mihai accepted an invitation to go in-house to create and run a legal department at a fast-growing lifestyle real estate brand.
Mihai’s journey began behind the Iron Curtain. He was born in Bucharest, Romania, to parents who immigrated to the United States four years later. His family settled in California. There, Mihai adjusted to elementary school and learned English, often taking care of himself while his hard-working parents took blue collar jobs to make ends meet. “Like most immigrants, they would outwork anyone around them, and they expected me to make the most of our family’s new opportunity,” Mihai recalls.
Enrolling in college was a foregone conclusion. Mihai studied political science at UC Irvine and enrolled in classes where he studied criminal justice and constitutional law. Suddenly, his worldview started to expand. “I grew up in a house where everything was black and white, but my professors were discussing the gray areas of the law,” he says. Mihai’s background helped him see all sides of legal and cultural issues. He participated in debate clubs and Model United Nations simulations, developing a reputation for his strong ability to argue both sides of any topic.
Upon graduation, Mihai, who had learned Spanish and French (in addition to English and his native Romanian), considered pursuing a job with the US Department of State. However, many of his friends and peers were studying for the LSAT exam, and the naturally competitive Mihai decided to try the law school admission test. “For me, the LSAT and bar exams were games I wanted to win,” he recalls, adding that he took countless practice exams until he had mastered the process. Mihai passed the LSAT and enrolled at Whittier Law School.
Mihai quickly landed a job as a law clerk at Lynberg & Watkins and was later placed on the firm’s team to represent municipal law enforcement agencies, including that of the County of Orange. The position put him in close contact with Shel Harrell, whom Mihai credits as an important professional mentor. Under Harrell’s tutelage, Mihai argued motions, cross-examined witnesses, and wrote appellate briefs. Mihai, who had become an associate, was determined to surpass the total billable hours per month required to make partner. That number was 170; Mihai’s total approached 200.
That’s when two Los Angeles Laker games changed the course of his life and career. The first was with his firm. Mihai invited Kuba Jewgieniew, a friend from his recreational soccer league. Jewgieniew, CEO of Realty ONE Group, returned the favor by inviting Minhai to a game with the staff of Realty ONE. Immediately, Mihai noticed a contrast. “Even great law firms have a very formal and stuffy culture that kind of takes the fun out of a pro basketball game,” he explains. “The Realty ONE people were laughing and having fun. They weren’t talking about work.”
Mihai and Jewgieniew developed a friendship, and when Jewgieniew presented his need for a general counsel, Mihai was intrigued. Ten years after its inception, Realty ONE was disrupting the real estate franchising model by offering savvy tech tools and 100 percent commissions. With eye-popping revenues and staggering growth, the potential seemed limitless. Although he had just made partner and was handling an important case that took three years to prepare, in 2015 Mihai agreed to leave Lynberg & Watkins to become Realty ONE’s first general counsel.
Today, Mihai still pursues important legal wins, but those wins look different in-house. “Nothing beats the feeling a trial lawyer gets when the foreperson reads a verdict in favor of his client, but the highs for a general counsel come when you close important business deals that carry the company forward,” he says. In just a few short years, Mihai has created a joint venture with CNG Financial to form an internal mortgage provider known as EPiQ Lending. He’s also helped Realty ONE in the sale of seven California offices and drafted contracts to open hundreds of franchises across the nation. Lastly, he’s developed a key partnership with Bremer Whyte Brown & O’Meara to guide all litigation matters.
These efforts have Realty ONE on a path to continue its meteoric rise. In 2015, the organization had 10,000 real estate agents. It closed 2021 with nearly 20,000. The company, which bills itself as an “UNBrokerage,” sold roughly 100 franchises in 2021 and is surpassing competitors to become one of the industry’s fastest-growing franchisors. Now, Realty ONE has its sights set on international expansion; Mihai and his team are working on deals to take the brand to Europe, South America, Asia, and beyond. More than five years into his tenure with the company, Mihai is as ambitious as ever and looking forward to the next five years.