Do you remember the 1988 fantasy-comedy film “Big” about a boy who makes a wish “to be big”? After being humiliated while trying to impress an older teenage girl at a carnival, Josh Baskin goes to a wish/fortune-telling machine (called Zoltar Speaks) and wishes that he were “big.” The next morning, he sees a face in the mirror he does not recognize. Overnight, he has become a 30-year-old man.

I can’t help thinking about the past string of law firms who made a wish “to be big” and overnight they were aged into – well I’m not quite sure yet? I know there are good reasons to be big, but what do you give up in order to be big? Let’s look at a story about banks.

I banked with a modest, no-nonsense, reliable, and trustworthy community bank for many years. It was never too much trouble for them to pick up the phone to speak with me about my accounts. But when I moved to a new city it was just too impractical to keep my money there. I hesitated to move my money to bank with a national presence because they always felt “too big” for me. But, Wachovia was #1 in customer satisfaction and that appealed to me. I’ve come to realize the standards for large banks are set so low that being #1 is pretty meaningless. So far my customer experience includes– the death spin of automated phone trees, surly tellers, unresponsive technical assistance, bogus fees, branches that can’t open accounts, lost paper work, and that’s just a few. Who is Wachovia and what did they do to #1?

Wachovia was an old regional bank that traced its roots to 1879. It was a successful local bank for almost 100 years. They purchased Atlanta National Bank in 1986 to modestly expand into a multi-state bank. Fifteen years later they went to Zoltar and made “the wish.”

In 2001 they merged with First Union/CoreStates. (According to some, it was actually an acquisition but they kept the Wachovia identity in order to get a fresh start following the botched up merger with CoreStates). And in 6 short years they “got big” acquiring Prudential Securities, Metropolitan West Securities, SouthTrust, Westcorp, Golden West Financial and A.G. Edwards. In 2008, Wachovia, looked in the mirror and saw things-not going so well. Yet in denial, had a deal to sell it’s banking operations to Citigroup, then they switched to a different deal with Wells Fargo and now things look like they’re headed for litigation. Be careful what you wish for, eh? Oh, and what about the Customers? Quite a distraction, I’m sure. My small business banker couldn’t take my call because he was too busy signing up new people for the special CD offers last month.

It seems they have become “so big” they can afford to not-care about customers; one or two at a time, perhaps. What happens when that snowballs into hundreds and thousands of customers who are not so happy? Furthermore, they abuse customers in increments of $6 for this and that, and will gladly put overdraft services on your account direct to a Wachovia credit card with cash interest rates. Pretty short sighted, in my mind. I think they got so big, so fast they spend more time trying to grow than looking after their customers, the ones who gave them a chance to grow. I’ve talked to a few employees who say they try to put things right, implement rules that work well, but combined with existing rules (and future rules) you get a big mess. The industry needs ….an extreme makeover. Sound familiar?

Do we really need to ask ourselves why big law firms dissolving? Is it really the economy? Who is the economy? Who’s minding the clients when the partners are focused on the next acquisition to leverage their profits; the over-paid, not-ready-for-prime-time associates? Have they grown so big in order to impress that they sacrificed the basic things that make a childhood so wonderful? What are they seeing in the mirror? Can Zoltar grant the extreme makeover that is needed? If only Zoltar were real.