I recently read two articles that underlined how some major brokerages operate.

First off, Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MWD), in an effort to focus more on the customers who generate the most income for the company, is downsizing, shedding nearly 10% of its brokers. The brokers who are deemed underperforming are ones who rake in less than $100,000 to $200,000 annually in fees and commissions.

Did you catch that last word there? Commissions. That's an important word to consider when you think about how your broker may be serving you. If he or she is being compensated significantly by commissions based on investments sold to you or trades in your account, then your best interests may not be first and foremost on that broker's mind. The Morgan Stanley story suggests that the firm isn't interested in doing all it can to serve the small investor.

Meanwhile, over at Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER), the company recently settled a lawsuit and agreed to pay overtime sums to a host of brokers. There are additional overtime-related lawsuits in the pipeline, targeting Merrill Lynch and other big brokerages. When you dig into the details in this story, you see that the issue revolves around what the brokers actually do. If they mostly sell products to customers, they are reportedly eligible for overtime pay. If they instead focus primarily on research and advising clients, they're not. This case supports the notion that many stockbrokers are essentially salespeople, trying to get you in or out of various investments, and pocketing commissions along the way.

Investors, think about this.

Consider using a "discount" brokerage -- which doesn't aim to hold your hand and advise you how to invest. Instead, discounters offer low fees. The discount broker world has gotten a lot better in the last few years -- enough so that the word "discount" makes some wince. The differences between discounters such as Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD), E*Trade (NYSE:ET), privately held Fidelity, Charles Schwab (NYSE:SCH), and Toronto-Dominion's (NYSE:TD) TD Waterhouse unit and traditional "full-service" brokerages such as Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch have grown smaller. Many "full-service" brokers have lowered their fees (though they're still often on the steep side), and the "discounters" now offer a wide range of stock research and other services.

For most of us Foolish investors, a solid online brokerage with low fees and a broad range of services is all we need. Learn more in our Broker Center, which lets you compare a handful of brokerages in a handy table.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Charles Schwab is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation.