The Short AnswerThe short answer to this question is: it depends. If you've been in a truly minor accident and there are truly no injuries, you might not need a lawyer. This is especially true if you have a good relationship with the other party in the accident. In other cases, a lawyer is absolutely necessary.
The Long AnswerThe longer answer to this question involves defining when an accident is truly "minor," understanding the nature of injuries after an accident, and settling issues of liability.
Is It Actually Minor?Everyone's definition of minor is a bit subjective. According to most insurance companies, a "minor" accident is one in which there are no injuries, people settle their claims quickly, and no one files a lawsuit. To the average layperson, however, the term "minor" is more personal and can mean anything from a slight scrape in the parking lot to "at least no one was killed!"
To help clear things up, consider a few scenarios that are definitely minor and almost certainly don't require a lawyer:
Scenario OneIn pulling out of your home parking space, you accidentally scrape your bumper along the side of your sister's car. You and your sister have a great relationship, you immediately pay to have the damage fixed, and the whole incident barely makes a bump in your day.
Scenario TwoYou're in line to pick up your child at school when the parent ahead of you stops too quickly because a child runs out into the road, causing you to hit the back of their car. Everyone was crawling along at low speeds, and you have to look closely to even see the damage. You know the parent and are on good terms, you both feel it was really no one's fault and are just glad no children were hurt, and you decide to each fix your own vehicles.
These scenarios can definitely be classed as minor, and most of the time, no car accident lawyer is needed. No serious issues were raised and no issues of liability have come up that require a third party to adjudicate. But not all similar accidents are so easy.
Was Anyone Injured?Injury is a big question when it comes to determining if an accident is minor or not. Even if an accident looks minor immediately afterward, it can be much more serious than it seems if someone has been hurt. In a fender-bender, for example, it's possible for there to be so little damage to the cars--especially well-made modern cars--that it almost can't be seen, yet someone could still have a serious whiplash injury or even a concussion.
Determining InjuryIt's important to realize that any accident, even a small one, gets the adrenaline flowing. Adrenaline is a powerful chemical designed to push our bodies through a crisis and help us stay alive. Adrenaline is there to allow a human, for example, to successfully run away from a bear even after they've turned an ankle--the adrenaline masks the pain and injury temporarily so you can save your life.
Because of the way adrenaline works, it's actually not unusual for someone to sustain a real injury in an accident but be completely unaware of it until later. For this reason, in most cases of even minor accidents, it's wise to get checked out by a medical professional even if you feel fine at first. This is especially an issue for those with weaker necks, such as the elderly or anyone who has recently sustained a neck injury. It's also important to watch for injuries to wrists from bracing, to the head from hitting the wheel or even a seatback, and to the knees.
How Whiplash WorksIt used to be thought that whiplash could only be sustained at relatively high speeds--over 10mph, for instance. In part, this was because the force at speeds slower than 5mph can be shown to be similar, or even less than, the forces a person's neck endures when sneezing or even plopping down heavily in a chair. Recent research has called this into question, however, due to bracing.
When you know you're going to sneeze, you brace the muscles of your neck for the impact. The same is true when you throw yourself heavily into a chair. But if you're hit from behind unexpectedly, you will not be braced, so the impact may be far worse even if the forces are similar.
In the school parking lot scenario given above, it's likely that both drivers would have been bracing as it happened, but in many other rear-end collisions, even at low speeds, the driver who is hit is not bracing and unaware the accident is about to happen.
How a Car Accident Lawyer Can HelpIf you've been injured, an attorney can protect you in several ways. For one thing, your attorney can go to bat for you against the insurance companies, who are often reluctant to pay out for anything they consider a "minor" accident and suspicious about injuries from low-speed collisions.
Additionally, an experienced car accident lawyer will be able to advise you about when you need to seek medical help and how to keep careful track of your medical expenses. These are often greater than you might assume. It's natural to think only of the immediate bills as they come in, but you may also have to spend money in the future on physical therapy and other treatments.
In addition, you should take into consideration any lost time at work, any time off from work a spouse or family member had to take in order to help you, and any money you've spent paying a third party to do things you can't do because of your injury, like care for your children. An attorney knows what you need to look for and how to keep track.
Was Anyone Liable?This is the biggest question in any car accident. If someone else caused your accident by negligent or reckless driving, you'll need a lawyer to go to bat against their insurance company and to advise you if you should file a personal injury lawsuit. This may be the only way to recover lost wages, cover your medical bills, or get your vehicle fixed or replaced.
In other cases, you may need a car accident lawyer to protect you. This could be because the other party is accusing you of causing the accident when you did not. But even if you are at fault, you should be compensating the other person only for what's reasonable, and in a minor accident that may not be much. If they're seeking a lot more than what's reasonable for you to give, a lawyer can protect you.