I recently gave 2 weeks notice to my employer of 1.5 years. I work very closely with many clients and have built strong relationships with them. I emailed several of them letting them know I was leaving the position and that it has been a pleasure working with them. When my boss found out, she said that this was illegal. She claimed that I “stole client information”. Is this true? My email was non-soliciting and very professional. However, my boss is angry that I contacted clients personally and is now claiming I did something illegal. Any advice or thoughts?
As an employee, it is not your place to tell clients you are leaving.
They are the company's clients not 'yours', no matter how long you've been working with them. It can be seen as personal use of a client list, which is a form of theft.
You need to apologize and not do it anymore.
If the company takes legal action then you should talk to a lawyer.
To you, it probably feels like you're just trying to say goodbye to people you've worked closely together with for a long time but it can be viewed as solicitation. By reaching out to these contacts, if you're giving them your contact details it implies you'd like to continue working with them, which is solicitation. Even if you're not mentioning your contact details, it can be seen as you trying to stimulate them to ask for your contact information which is again solicitation.
In the future, should you find yourself in a similar position, you should always check with your employer how they'd like to handle the transfer, because this is (or at least should be) covered by company policy.
It all depends on whether or not you were actually stealing clients. Telling them that you will be leaving, and giving them the name of a colleague as a new contact seems a reasonable thing to do.
Telling them that you will be leaving, and encouraging them to become customers of the new company you will be moving to is another matter.
I can't address legality but I don't think it's good practice for you, as an individual, acting independently of your employer, to notify your employer's clients. It's really up to the employer to decide the method, content, and timing of that message. The relationship is theirs, not yours; especially now that you're leaving. They have to maintain the relationship once you're gone, not you. The transition is their business, not yours. They very were may want the email to come from you, but it shouldn't have come from you without their consent, and without including some sort of reference to the transition (ie "so-and-so is copied on this message and will be handling your relationship).
Even if you did not explicitly give them personal contact info or solicit their business at your new employer, it's pretty easy to see "hey I'm leaving!" and take it as a reason for them to follow up with you with respect to your new employer - especially since there wasn't an explicit hand off to someone else at your old employer to handle the account. You've left it totally open ended, which is going to be problematic for your old employer. Their clients are now in doubt and don't have a clear plan for going forwards.
All that said, I've had situations where I developed close, personal friendships with clients, and I spoke with them about changes in employment directly. However, that was done through "friendship" channels (meeting them for dinner, a personal call to a personal phone number after the work day was over, etc), not through professional channels (email from my work account, phone call during the work day from my work phone). If you don't know these clients well enough to be contacting them via personal channels after hours, you don't know them well enough to inform them of your departure without your employer's consent.
If you left your personal contact information then yes that is potentially bad for you, regardless of your true intentions. The company - and courts - could see it that you are stealing clients and you may be in violation of any contract and/or laws. Not only that if you contact those clients at your new job, regardless of intending to bring them to your new company, could put you and your new company in a heap of troubles.
Best to leave a memo like so:
Client A, I regret to inform you that I am departing from my current position to pursue new opportunities. It has been a pleasure working with you. Your new contact at company X is my colleague Z and his contact information is A, B, C, as well as CC'd on this email. Thank you.