Mutual Fund & ETF Awards 2024: Independent Counsel of the Year nominees

Lawyers from Simpson Thacher, Ropes & Gray, Practus and Stradley Ronon vie for award honoring outstanding fund-board guidance

Every year, Fund Directions’ annual awards recognize achievements in the world of fund oversight.

This year’s nominees for Independent Counsel of the Year, which recognizes outstanding work by fund board counsel, include attorneys from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Ropes & Gray, Practus and Stradley Ronon. The winners will be announced the night of June 18 at the Mutual Fund & ETF Awards in New York City.

Look for more awards coverage, including a profile of our soon-to-be-announced Lifetime Achievement Award winner, in the June digital issue of Fund Directions.

Congratulations, and good luck to all the nominees.

Independent Counsel of the Year 2024 nominees:

David Blass and Jacqueline Edwards, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP

David Blass and Jacqueline Edwards, both partners in the Registered Funds practice at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, were nominated jointly for their work as counsel to the trustees of the Fidelity Equity & High Income Funds on issues facing the board that were “highly complex” and “substantively novel,” according to colleagues who nominated the two.

In addition to providing advice during 2023 and 2024 on traditional issues, including 15(c) evaluations and analysis of 12b-1 marketing and distribution fees, the two helped trustees deliver effective oversight as Fidelity developed and implemented a new “unified Fee” structure designed to reduce overall expense ratios for 215 Fidelity funds and make the fee-calculation process less complex for shareholders.

Blass and Edwards were instrumental, according to their nomination, in helping the adviser overcome organizational problems, avoid regulatory conflicts and replace a fee structure Fidelity had used for nearly 50 years with a new one that better fit the changing dynamics of the fund marketplace.

Blass is a partner at Simpson Thacher and head of the firm’s Asset Management Regulatory Group. He joined the firm in 2017 after working as general counsel of the Investment Company Institute, for which he testified before Congress and appeared before the SEC and the Dept. of Labor. Before that, he held a number of senior roles at the SEC, including chief counsel of the Trading and Markets Division. He focuses on registered funds regulation and operation and received the 2021 Independent Counsel of the Year award for his work with the Ivy Funds trustees during Macquarie’s $1.7bn acquisition of Ivy manager Waddell & Reed.

Edwards is a counsel in the firm’s Registered Funds Practice, where she counsels investment companies and directors on investment management, securities regulation and governance. She joined the firm in 2021 and held a seat on the Investment Management Regulation Committee of the New York City Bar Association from 2018 and 2023.

John Loder, Ropes & Gray LLP

John Loder was nominated for the depth of his expertise in asset management law, which he “distills…into practical and commercial guidance” for fund directors and executives.

He served as independent counsel to the trustees of the Schwab Funds and ETFs Complex for 22 years, to the Dodge & Cox Funds for 19 years and the Artisan Partners funds for 12 years. He was independent counsel to the fixed-income, money-market and equity funds of the American Century fund group for 13 years.

Prior to retiring at the end of 2023, Loder led the Investment Management practice at Ropes & Gray, and, during his 40 years of practice in the industry, represented more than 500 mutual funds and ETFs during his career, with assets totaling more than $1trn, according to the colleagues who nominated him.

Loder crossed to the other side of the boardroom after retiring from his position as partner at Ropes & Gray in December 2023, becoming an independent director for American Century Funds, where he chairs the technology and risk committees and serves on the funds’ audit and compliance, portfolio, corporate governance and client experience oversight committees.

He has been a member of the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 2009 and currently serves as vice chair. He is also trustee and secretary at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he has held a board seat since 2014. Since 2023 he has served as a director at the League of American Orchestras.

Karen Aspinall, Practus LLP

Karen Aspinall, partner and practice-area chair for financial services at Practus LLP, was nominated in recognition of her ability to spot complex errors in organizational or regulatory areas and develop “real-world” solutions to assist clients in satisfying both compliance requirements and fiduciary obligations, according to colleagues who nominated her.

In November 2023, Aspinall and her team helped Themes Management Company LLC  launch the Themes ETF Trust, with 22 ETFs registered at the outset. Aspinall is also helping to guide Themes Management in the development of several other novel products, leads the trust board meetings, and works extensively on matters of issue to the board, according to nomination materials.

Since 2021, Aspinall and her team have also partnered with ETF Architect  –  a white-label ETF operations and management platform — to register 32 ETFs under its EA Series Trust. Aspinall works extensively with the trust board on 15(c) reviews, governance and regulatory issues, and related issues.

Aspinall is practice area chair for financial services at Practus, which she joined as a partner in December 2020. Before joining Practus, she spent 10 years at Pimco, which she joined as a vice president and attorney in 2010 and left in 2020 as executive vice president and deputy general counsel.

Before that she was SVP and assistant general counsel at Nuveen Investments between 2007 and 2010 and served as associate for more than three years each at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, and at Dechert LLP.

Eric Purple, Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young LLP

Stradley Ronon partner Eric Purple was nominated in recognition of his ability to use his deep, practical experience with the SEC’s regulatory and enforcement efforts to help clients steer clear of trouble while advancing their business interests.

Purple currently serves as fund and board counsel for the $15bn Janus Henderson ETFs and the $47bn Global X ETFs. He also advises independent directors of various closed-end funds and business development companies.

In March, for example, Purple was able to help coordinate process of merging the boards of two publicly traded BlackRock business development companies.

He has also been able to help carry off a number of other board and fund mergers during the past two years, while serving as counsel to the board of Oaktree’s publicly traded BDC as well, according to the nomination.

Purple also guided two board clients through recent “contentious” SEC examinations over hot-button “issues of significant importance to the [SEC] staff,” using his own practical experience as a former SEC lawyer and the help of senior partners in litigation and enforcement to identify “key areas of potential regulatory concern,” resulting in no follow-up action from the SEC staff.

Purple has been a partner at Stradley Ronon since 2016, before which he worked as a partner at K&L Gates LLP from 2009 to 2016 and at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, from 2007 until the firm merged with K&L Gates in 2009.

Between 1999 and 2007, Purple worked in the SEC’s Division of Investment Management, where he was principal author on 19 no-action letters and was one of the division’s primary contacts for the regulation of business development companies. He spent the year before joining the SEC as chief compliance officer for Rydex Funds.