Professor Joseph Ragland Long was born on December 15, 1870, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was taught at home, until he reached college level, principally by an older sister. Long studied at Richmond College (now the University of Richmond) and graduated with an A.B. degree in 1890. He later continued undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania (B.S. in 1894) and studied law at the University of Virginia (LL.B. 1895).
After graduation from the University of Virginia Long did editorial work for the Edward Thompson Publishing Company in Northport, New York, particularly on the American and English Encyclopedia of Law. After one year Long moved to Denver, Colorado, to practice, partly out of concern for his poor health.
Long married Talitha Chenault Brinker of Denver on August 12, 1902. They had three sons during their marriage, Joseph R. Long, Jr., John Chenault Long, and Lucian Massie Long.
Long accepted a teaching post with Washington and Lee University in 1902. During the years from 1903 to 1912 Long, Dean Burks and Professor Staples formed the entire faculty.