Paul Singer was born in New York City, earned his law degree from Harvard, and began his career as a corporate lawyer. But it wasn't until he founded his hedge fund with money from friends and family that he unleashed the career that would earn him billions.

According to the most recent estimates from Forbes, Singer today is worth about $1.9 billion, making him the 351st wealthiest individual in the United States and No. 16 among hedge-fund managers.

Paul Singer's hedge fund
Singer's massive wealth stems from his successful hedge fund, Elliott Management Corp. The firm manages around $25 billion in total, with just over $8 billion in its domestic fund.

Singer founded the fund in 1977, and it has returned over 14% annually since then. The fund's success has come from Singer's ability to find distressed assets, buy them up on the cheap, and then successfully use international court systems, boardroom tactics, and brilliant financial engineering to extract as much value as possible from those assets. 

In 1995, for example, Singer bought $11 million worth of distressed Peruvian bank debt with a face value of $20 million. In 1998, Peru paid Singer over $58 million to make the debt whole, including past-due interest.

During another debt battle, Singer exposed corruption in the Congolese government while battling for repayment of $20 million in debts from that country. That legal fight eventually netted Singer $90 million.

Singer has been battling Argentina in a similar fashion for nearly 15 years over bonds issued in 2001. That ordeal even made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Singer's favor, but as of yet the fight remains unresolved.

Paul Singer's boardroom battles
While these international fights grab headlines, they're not the only way Singer has amassed such huge wealth. Singer and his cohorts at Elliott Management also take an activist role in boardrooms across the corporate world.

Earlier this year, Elliott installed two board seats on the board of cloud-storage firm EMC Corp. after investing over $1 billion in the company.

Elliott hopes to divest EMC's equity stakes in the companies that comprise the so-called "EMC Federation." Singer thinks that these companies are worth more as separate entities rather than as a consortium of cloud-computing businesses bound by equity investments from EMC. EMC's management sees the federation as a play on synergy, while Elliott sees inefficiency. 

Singer is 70 years old, but he isn't slowing down. In June, Elliott sent a letter to the management team and board of directors at Citrix Systems, announcing Elliott's 7.1% equity position and laying out plans to improve operational performance at the company.

The letter made the case that Citrix is underperforming its peers in efficiency and effectiveness driven by poor execution and bloated operations. Singer thinks Citrix stock could exceed $100 per share by the end of 2016 with these improvements implemented. The stock today trades at $69 and is down 1.25% since Singer's hedge fund sent the letter to the company. 

An opportunist at heart
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Singer saw yet another opportunity: distressed real estate assets around the world. The fund quickly deployed resources to set up real estate offices in London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. He has funded equity and debt investments in skyscrapers, distressed properties, hotels, and more.

If you're keeping a tally, Singer has used strategies in foreign sovereign debt, corporate breakups, improving operational efficiency, and even real estate. The one thing that links them all is opportunity and aggressiveness, and that's the key to his massive wealth.

These are qualities that everyday investors can seek to emulate. No, we can't take a foreign government to court and expect to win. Nor can we finance the construction of a skyscraper or win a board seat on a Fortune 500 company. But we can pay attention to the markets around us, and we can take advantage of opportunities we see.

That could have meant investing in a rental property in your neighborhood following the real estate collapse, or buying shares of a bank stock on the rebound in 2010 or 2011. It could be local to you or a national trend. The key is staying aware of the marketplace around us, being patient, and, when an opportunity arises, seizing it aggressively.

It's fundamentally the same approach Warren Buffett uses in his equity investments, except Buffett is willing to pay a little extra to invest in the companies he thinks will prosper for 100 years or more. Look for companies that have a competitive advantage, whose products that are particularly difficult to replace, and that run a business you can understand.

That's what Buffett does. It's also what Paul Singer does. And you can do it, too.